It is with some trepidation that I wade into this issue, but recent events, both at a local church, and in Alex Grenier’s ongoing relationship with Calvary Chapel, have me thinking about this stuff at some length. I hope kind readers will bear with me; as always I’m not especially interested in whether one particular man or another should be a pastor, but rather I’m looking for guidelines when trying to pick a church that is a safe place for myself and my family.
As everyone knows, Paul the Apostle sent his traveling companions Timothy and Titus a couple of different places and then wrote to them giving instructions on the handling of elders and deacons in the local churches in the cities he sent them to. Those of us with a high view of Scripture typically derive our views on the qualifications of pastors, elders, and deacons from these instructions, and we typically dress up our views by calling them “biblical eldership” or some such.
When writing to Timothy Paul sets a very high standard for elders, including spiritual maturity, absence of various vices, managing his household, etc. In a later section Paul also gives Timothy instructions regarding money given to elders, and warns against being quick to judge elders. What Paul doesn’t do is outline the process or criteria for disqualifying an elder.
Some readers draw a bright line, saying that any elder who isn’t fully qualified is disqualified. See e.g. this article by Orthodox Presbyterian writer Archibald Alexander Allison [link]:
It is the church’s God-given duty to keep all unworthy men out of the office of ruling and teaching elder. Should a man already in office show himself unqualified for the office he holds, the church must be diligent to remove him from that office. In so doing the church will uphold the honor of Christ and insure that the church is edified unto greater peace, purity, and unity.
Not everyone draws the same conclusions. I was surprised, for example, to find in Jay Bakker’s book Son of a Preacher Man his claim that since God had called his father (televangelist and Assemblies of God preacher Jim Bakker) nobody was qualified to tell him he couldn’t return to the pulpit after he did his prison time.
I have on occasion seen a deacon board confront and fire a preacher because his wife left him and wouldn’t return. I’ve also seen Paul’s later instructions “do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” used as a way to discredit mounting accusations against a pastor because none of the anecdotes had two or three independent witnesses.
If I had to stake a out a position here, I would be inclined to say that since the Scripture doesn’t say clearly how to handle the difficult problem of removing a preacher (yes, note the equivocation between the ancient “elder” and the modern “preacher”), then
- There’s a great deal of liberty to be had here
- It’s important to find out what position the church you’re attending takes, and what process they have in place for guaranteeing they will behave consistently with that position
- These verses serve as a prism of sorts, and the standard we use to interpret them often says more about the reader than about the text
That being said let me turn to the case of Bob Grenier, pastor of Calvary Chapel Visalia [link]. His son Alex has accused him of physically abusing Alex and at least some of his brothers, including punching them in their heads, etc. These accusations are central to understanding Alex’s blog Calvary Chapel Abuse [link]. After having read a fair amount of Alex’s blog over the years, I have to say I find Alex’s accusations credible. I don’t think he’s lying; I don’t think he’s mistaken; I don’t think he’s exaggerating. Having decided that Alex is credible I have to choose one of two positions:
- It’s okay for a preacher to punch his children, repeatedly, over a period of years. Or
- It’s not okay for a preacher to punch his children, repeatedly, over a period of years.
Because honestly if there’s nothing wrong with hitting children then there are no more questions here about whether Bob Grenier is fit to be in the pulpit.
This is not a subject the Scriptures treat in great detail either; the proverbs about “sparing the rod” notwithstanding. There’s more going on in the Grenier situation than simple disagreements over disciplining children, anyway.
But on balance I would have to say no; it’s not okay for a preacher to punch his children, repeatedly, over a period of years.
I have focused on this particular accusation for a reason: Paul the Apostle singles out physical violence as being off-limits for an elder. This gets rendered “not violent” in the ESV and “no striker” in the KJV; I do occasionally see people attempt to interpret this prohibition as being a description of temperament (as if “not violent but gentle” were just a poetic way to say “really gentle”) but I can’t find a good reason not to take it literally: a violent man shouldn’t be installed as an elder.
Also, and this is more of a personal opinion, I have to suggest that if a man has two or more adult children making serious public accusations against him, he isn’t “managing his household well” (ESV) or “ruling well his own house” (KJV).
I have to argue that if I were responsible for ordaining Bob Grenier, and I knew these things about him, I would be failing my responsibilities if I ordained him.
Now if I read the tea leaves here (starting at say [link]) it looks to me like Chuck Smith has decided that he isn’t going to do anything about Bob Grenier and nothing is going to change his mind. And there isn’t, apparently, anything in the Calvary Chapel way of doing church that can or will do anything about Bob Grenier.
I don’t know what it means about Calvary Chapel that Bob Grenier is still in the pulpit, but I would encourage thoughtful readers to find out more before committing any time, money or energy to a Calvary Chapel. It says a lot; I’m just not sure what.
Of course like a lot of things about Calvary Chapel this will probably get revisited when Chuck dies and the new regime, whoever they are, take control. I for one hope they will clarify this aspect of church leadership for the benefit of those of us who love Calvary and wish them well.
I’m going to make a hash of this, but I’m going to give it a try anyway.
As I mentioned recently, I got to spend a big chunk of a week on the south end of Maui listening to a Calvary Chapel radio station (KLHT in Honolulu). One of the great things about listening to a Calvary station all day long is that because Calvary has some sort of institutional commitment to teaching through the entire Bible not every sermon will be “another great sermon from Romans 8;” there’s a chance you’ll hear someone try to make sense of Leviticus or Lamentations. I actually heard two different pastors working on different parts of the Mosaic Law, with varying success.
The downside, of course, is that you may hear the text mishandled.
I heard so many sermons that I can’t say who the pastor was, and that’s my shortcoming, because I wish I had the audio to double-check my impressions. Instead I just had my traveling companion’s assessment of what I’m about to relay to you. Pray forgive me.
The source text was one of the Pauline passages on spiritual gifts (so it would have had to have been in Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians [link]) and the speaker was contrasting among other things between “teaching” and “helps,” so probably not Ephesians. And I noticed that when he talked about gifts he considered himself to have, or gifts he considered the domain of the pastoral office (teaching, exhorting, leading, administration) his illustrations were long and lush, and revolved around himself or another pastor he personally knew. When he talked about the other gifts (prophecy, miracles, tongues, serving, giving, mercy, helps) the illustrations were short, to the point, underimagined, and in the case of the more supernatural gifts, historical. Oh and: the use of the gifts in the latter category were without fail for the benefit not of the people in the local church, nor for the people in the surrounding community, but for the organization of the church itself. Especially the ones that could be interpreted to involve giving money.
Let me be clear: I understand the risks involved with opening up a discussion on spiritual gifts, inviting people in the pews to express themselves, etc. I understand that many churches have histories rife with chaos surrounding strong-willed people who decided they had a spiritual gift and took an opportunity to make a power play on that basis. And I understand the fact that Calvary, especially given its organizational distinctives and folk tales of elders and carpets is especially likely to produce pastors who see themselves has being the only people in the local church with a worthwhile spiritual gift.
But I might humbly suggest that the way Paul the Apostle presents gifts functioning within the church, a pastor who is most threatened by other people’s gifts, least appreciative of them, and least experienced with successful churches with gifts being expressed somewhere other than the pulpit, that pastor should be watched most carefully when he handles a text like this.
I wish I could say “if your pastor says X you need to leave” but of course very little is ever that clear cut. But I think I would say something along the lines of “if your pastor thinks he’s the only one with a spiritual gift, consider yourself warned.”
I was waiting for a conference call to start when I visited Michael Newnham’s blog Phoenix Preacher and found his article noting [link] that C. J. Mahaney is on hiatus and offering that it’s because the Brent Detwiler paper trail is now available for download at Scribd [link].
Peter Smith offers a perspective piece in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal [link]. This is a good-not-great piece; Smith appears to be focusing on Al Mohler’s take on the situation and the Sovereign Grace Ministries position on male church leadership in a way that clutters the narrative, but he manages to identify most of the major players and distill their contribution into a soundbite.
I would recommend downloading the Detwiler archive, despite the fact that Scribd requires signup for download. It’s 600+ pages of PDFs; I may cache a copy here if I get time to read it closely and offer more opinion. At first glance it’s pretty sloggy stuff: I have a hard time imagining that grownups in the 21st Century really speak to one another this way. There’s a lot of Christianese, for lack of a better term, and sometimes it’s hard to tell how it would correspond to plain English if it could be translated. If you are (as I am) the sort of person who considers stuff like “you invalidated my feelings” mumbo jumbo you’re in for some rough sledding here.
I am only marginally interested in this particular scandal. There are no SGM churches in New Mexico, and while I believe modern evangelicalism has a sickness unto death I think the new Calvinist movement is at best retrograde, so I can’t imagine ever attending an SGM church if one were to be planted here.
That being said, I am inclined to say this sort of crisis, for lack of a better word, was probably inevitable. The Young Restless Reformed cultural movement, for lack of a more euphonious term, isn’t a return to the roots of Protestantism; it’s a new movement, and as such it needs to learn things the hard way in the same way all new movements do. It’s no surprise that this would be their crisis, either: Reformed types take most of their theology from Paul the Apostle, and tend to be a bit authoritarian. That SGM is a “church network” rather than a denomination solves some problems and creates others; in particular, because it has a lean (not to say opaque) authority structure invites bad behavior on the part of leaders. Those are the choices they made; these are the consequences of those choices.
I have to admit I don’t have high hopes for the trouble here being resolved correctly. I’m not a fan of Josh Harris, and I don’t think he’s up to the task of leading SGM through this crisis. Everything I’ve read by or about him has led me to believe that he’s shallow and immature, and he’s the sort of person who would say all the right things from the pulpit while permitting all the wrong things to be done offstage, not least because he’s the leader and the most important thing to him is continuity of operations. I hope I’m wrong: that he has a depth I haven’t seen, that he’s teachable, and that he’ll learn and do the right things during this episode.
I had the great pleasure of spending last week on the south end of Maui, near the town of Kihei, home of Calvary Chapel South Maui, Trinity By The Sea Episcopal Church, Hope Chapel, and Kihei Baptist Church, among no doubt a host of others. Unfortunately our smallest traveling companion went down for a nap just as we would have been heading out the door for church, so I was denied a chance to visit Kihei Baptist. If we had planned ahead we might have caught the early service at the eighteenth-century Congregationalist church near our hotel, but we (I) failed to do so on both accounts.
This week Kihei is holding Vacation Bible School, and they are using the prepackaged curriculum Truerassic Park [link], a product from TruthQuest Children’s Ministries. Here’s the breakdown from their website:
Children are then guided through the six days of creation from Genesis chapter one, pointing out the flaws with evolutionary theories and emphasizing the reliability of God’s Word.
Then, they’ll learn about dinosaurs, which were created along with humans on the sixth day of creation, and where dinosaurs are described in the Bible, again shooting holes in evolutionary theories.
Next, children learn about the great flood, which wiped out the dinosaurs that hadn’t been on the ark, and how the sin of mankind is ultimately responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, along with all death, pain and sorrow.
Finally, with the effects of sin clearly defined, you’ll present the solution for sin in a powerful presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
If you grew up in fundamentalist circles, as I did, the only part of this that’s news to you is the part I’ve bolded above: that dinosaurs were created on Day Six. Since some dinosaurs apparently lived in the sea and some flew in the air I think I’ve always assumed there were some created on Day Five. But never mind. If you’ve listened to e.g. Ken Ham recently the rest of the story probably sounds familiar: Paul the Apostle’s description of what we call today Original Sin in Romans 5:12
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: [link]
is being repurposed to mean that there were no animal deaths before the Fall. I honestly don’t know if it’s nit-picky or not to point out that the passage in Romans isn’t about the fate of animals before the Fall; it’s about redemption, and the death that passes to all men is spiritual death, not physical death, and the Scriptures are silent on whether animals have spirits, etc.
I wonder what becomes of kids who become Christians at Vacation Bible School generally, and I especially wonder what becomes of kids whose faith is founded at least in part by programs like Truerassic Park. I wonder how many of them follow the expected pattern, who cling to the historicity of the Genesis Creation narrative because they fear they will lose their salvation if they doubt it, and I wonder how many end up thinking the Gospel itself is cartoonish because they learned about it from a cartoon dinosaur. It’s a long way from Vacation Bible School to adulthood, and I wonder how many kids who are exposed to programs like this make it with their faith intact.
I hesitate to mention at a point like this that when I’m faced with this sort of interpretive practice that I wonder if they don’t put the cart before the horse. I believe the Scriptures are in some sense true because I’m a Christian; I’m not a Christian because I believe the Bible is in some sense true. And I wonder if children are well-served by argumentation that runs the other way.
I had a chance on this trip to read a chunk of Fisher Humphreys’s 1994 book The Way We Were, a catalog of majority and minority positions within the Southern Baptist Convention circa 1979, and I have to admit the late-Seventies discussion within the SBC on inerrancy has been much on my mind, and that may have colored my reading of the billboard outside Kihei Baptist. Then again, maybe not.
One of the delicate issues one has to deal with in leaving one’s own frame of reference and going somewhere else is the question of what constitutes reasonable outrage for someone who has to live in one frame of reference or the other. And it’s a question that’s front and center when visiting someone else’s church.
I’m accustomed to living in Santa Fe, NM, complete with its racial tensions, public corruption, attitude toward natural resources, values regarding public spending and tax breaks, gangs, low high school graduation rates, etc. I’m no longer shocked and surprised to see charred spoons in the litter on the side of the road among the cigarette bottles and miniature liquor bottles; I’m more shocked to see label-less orange childproof prescription pill bottles displacing some of those charred spoons.
Still, I always find Scottsdale jarring, with its shiny cars, trophy houses, bleach blondes, air conditioning, golf courses, retirees, etc. Everyone is huge, rich, aggressive, selfish, etc. And so American. If I had to pick an iconic image that represents Scottsdale I’m not sure if I’d settle on its PGA tour event, its elevated freeway, it’s dimly-lit labyrinthine strip malls, or Pat Tillman. It’s just so far over the top in so many ways.
And so I’m inclined to wonder how anyone can manage a church in an environment like Scottsdale. Especially a second-generation megachurch with conservative theology and conservative politics. I don’t know how someone can preach e.g. “in Christ there is neither rich nor poor” or even “blessed are the poor” to a church full of rich retirees. Which is not to say that it’s impossible to be in Scottsdale but not of Scottsdale; just difficult, just as it would be anywhere else.
And it’s in this context that some of the aspects of Scottsdale Bible Church seemed most striking. Not just the parking lot full of gleaming cars, or the hoards of young, fit, church-going women in weather-appropriate not to say filmy or revealing church clothes. There was also the foyer picture case (I wouldn’t necessarily call it a shrine) full of pictures of church members (SBC, unlike some nondenominational churches I could mention, has voting members) who are serving in the military overseas. And the list of elder candidates in the bulletin who are all mid-to-late-career captains of industry, with obvious business acumen, and not a lot of detail about their spiritual maturity.
It is my understanding that in the Early Church there were occasionally problems due to slaves being elders and their owners being new believers; I don’t know if this is something that really happened, or if it’s a popular fiction that helps us make sense of some of the things we find in Paul’s Epistles. I have a hard time imagining a similar problem arising in any modern church; there just aren’t that many poor people in positions of authority in any modern church. It’s most striking in an obviously rich church like SBC, where poor people are hard to find, period.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the circle of light, facing an audience of two or three or eight thousand people every Sunday. Or to need to make budget week after week, and plan sermon series, and manage staff, and all that. It’s tough to lead a big church, and tough to lead a rich church, and it must be doubly tough to lead a big, rich church without say losing one’s soul.
I’ll get back to specifics in the next post, including a heads-up on the economic climate, church mergers, and so forth.
A year or so ago I posted for a while about what it was like being at Liberty University in the mid-Eighties; recent events (some involving Liberty, some not) have me thinking about this again. The upshot is this: I entered Liberty as a kind of “early Modern” person, and left as a kind of modern person with postmodern tendencies.
I think it’s fair to say that despite the occasional claim that Jerry Falwell and Liberty University herald the end of the Enlightenment, etc. Liberty is a very modern place full of people who see the world in a very modern way. And by this I don’t just mean that the vast majority of graduates enter fields that are industrial or postindustrial; I mean, there are lots of Business and Psychology graduates. But there’s more to it than that.
If we think of the history of Christianity as stretching from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Modern Era to whatever we are today, we have to acknowledge that the New Testament was written during the latter part of Ancient history, and the Reformation occurring on the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, but we are/were thoroughly modern. We tended to think in terms of “absolute truths,” “propositional logic,” and finally “propositional truth,” it didn’t occur to us to ask whether e.g. Paul’s readers would have read his letters the same way we read them, or whether they would have thought the same thing we did when they read them. We read our understanding of Paul’s words back into the text, mostly because we didn’t know of another way to read Paul.
One consequence of thinking this way was that I tended to see the world as existing in a kind of fixed matrix of truth, anchored by fixed points of divine revelation. Or as we often put it “all truth is God’s truth.” And since God is omniscient, everything true can be known.
It was at Liberty, and in class no less, that I stumbled onto two problems: one from Kurt Gödel and the other from Thomas Kuhn. Gödel dealt with issues of decidability; he proved that if a logical system is of sufficient complexity then it is either inconsistent or incomplete. Kuhn was more of a historian or a philosopher of science, and he argued pretty convincingly that while most of the time science consists of problem solving, and so is fairly stable and logical, there are occasional crises where science as it is practiced jumps more for social reasons than for logical reasons. What’s worse is his claim that scientists before and after the crisis are not mutually intelligible to each other. Or as he puts it “they talk past each other.”
Gödel led me to question that everything that is true could ever be known; I still haven’t worked my way out of that one. I’m not entirely sure it has theological implications per se, but I think I’d have to say that before reading Gödel I believed the correspondence between revelation and “ordinary truth” was close; afterward not so much.
Kuhn in a sense was and is more of a problem; his recasting of “scientists do science” as “science is what scientists do” plagues me still. I tend to see a lot of theological discussions as being centered in the theologians discussing rather than in an observable external theological phenomenon being discussed. Strictly speaking it’s a misapplication of what Kuhn argued, but unfortunately it’s a perspective that’s hard to shake.
So there you go; I’m still very modern in a lot of ways. I still believe that an author’s intent matters when reading a text, for example, but I lost a lot of the fundamentalist (or if you which presuppositionalist) certainty I took with me to Liberty. And I’m not entirely sure I would have gone through the same transition if I’d gone to school elsewhere. There was something jarring about hearing respectable authority figures claim both
“All truth is God’s truth”
“These [people] believe that there’s only one moral absolute, and that’s there are no moral absolutes.”
While at the same time reading Kuhn and realizing that not only do thinkers organize themselves socially as much as logically, but also that how these thinkers think varies from one period of history to another, with grave implications for whether they are mutually intelligible. I suppose it’s entirely possible that if I’d been someplace less linear (for lack of a better term) I might never have reached my own crisis.
It’s not often that something I’ve dealt with in a casual conversation shows up in the New York Times, but an article on single but unemployed pastors by Erik Eckholm [link] did just that. This is not a great article; it’s sort of a by-the-numbers churches-vs-modernity human interest story suggesting that while churches are exempt from federal anti-discrimination law when hiring for religious purposes they shouldn’t be. It’s thin on numbers, saying that in conservative churches 5% of pastors are single but not giving enough context to make sense even of that number.
There’s an appearance by Al Mohler, who gives good copy:
“Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”
Mr. Mohler said he tells the students at his seminary that “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.”
But Mohler as quoted doesn’t deal with the Pauline background here (e.g. Paul’s instructions to Titus and Timothy that an elder should be the “husband of one wife”) and as a result ends up in a vague modern narrative about “society” and job opportunities. As a result we’re left with an article that is mostly about the tension between perceptions of discrimination and the needs of a church:
Mr. Almlie, 37, has been shocked, he says, at what he calls unfair discrimination, based mainly on irrational fears: that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay. If the job search is hard for single men, it is doubly so for single women who train for the ministry, in part because many evangelical denominations explicitly require a man to lead the congregation.
The objections cited are pretty good ones; I don’t think a man is ready to lead a church until he’s raised a child. And it’s often problematic to have a single man in a leadership position in a church, not just because he might find women in the church desirable, but also because they might find him desirable. And of course there are more of them than there are of him.
I’m in the very conservative camp here: I tend to take “husband of one wife” to mean that an elder has to be male, and married, exactly once. As a modern person I’m always looking for counterexamples; I am still looking for a great preacher who doesn’t meet these three criteria.
In dealing with the Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Dave Bruskas took a tack I hadn’t heard before, saying that the Greeks in Paul’s audience understood that God was detached because divine beings were incapable of caring about humans. They would have thought that the idea of a God who cared about people was “stupid.” He says the corresponding temptation for us today (paralleling his earlier point about being “tempted to be Jewish”) is to think that God is impersonal, and our best response is to focus on self-actualization.
Dave by contrast quotes Romans 7:18 “nothing good dwells in me,” as proof that we cannot self-actualize, but rather that we need to understand that are good only in that we are forgiven. Along the way he says he’s “not against therapy, just against therapy focused inward” and relates a third too-perfect story, in which his daughter says it is unproductive to try to wrap our minds around God.
As I said earlier, this was a tack on this passage I hadn’t heard before: I’m more accustomed to the straight reading of the text that Greeks desire knowledge or insight, but instead God offers us something offensive to reason. I won’t suggest here that one reading is better than the other: Paul seems to assume that his audience knows enough about Jews and Greeks to make sense of what he’s saying without elaboration; modern readers need something to fill in the gaps here. I don’t know that it’s possible to say definitely what Paul meant beyond the plain meaning of what’s in the text.
But it’s on the latter point that I think this sermon goes off the rails. If I understand him correctly, Dave Bruskas is setting two things against one another that aren’t naturally in opposition. He seems to be saying that because God has reached out to us and asked us to believe, and we “get no more” as an explanation of salvation, that somehow this is also sufficient for all of our problems. He goes on to several other passages (Romans 5:6, John 6:44, Romans 5:9, Romans 8:1), attempting to hammer home the point that because our sins are forgiven everything else (by which I think he means all the other things that are wrong with us) are “small by comparison.” And along the way he tells stories about the death of his two-month-old son, and about an anonymous Christian struggling with a recurring sin.
His underlying claim (that because we are free from the consequences of sin, we are free to do good works) is much-neglected in Reformed circles so far as I can tell, but it sits awkwardly on Romans 8:1 (there’s no mention of good works there), and while he’s grappling with an important question: something like “if I’m a new creature, why am I still a mess?” he doesn’t actually answer it; he just attacks it. If someone is struggling with a problem that is damaging to themselves or to others, knowing that they will be ultimately forgiven for their sins isn’t answering the right question.
If someone were to say to me “I’m addicted to drugs,” or “I’m considering killing myself” telling them their sins are forgiven is an answer to a question they’re not asking.They’re actually looking for a way to stop doing drugs, or a way to avoid killing themselves; they’re taking about changes in behavior, not theological consequences. And while Dave is right — compared to spending eternity in Hell, a lifelong drug problem is relatively small — it doesn’t deal with the reality of the drug problem.
I would of course encourage readers to listen to Dave’s sermon themselves and see if I’m missing the point here. But this is one of the mistakes I think we make as theological conservatives by mistaking the most important thing for the only important thing. It’s not that salvation itself isn’t satisfactory, or that a solid soteriology isn’t important, but rather that it doesn’t answer every question. At least not correctly.
And that pretty much was the end of the sermon. There was a closing prayer, and we were reminded that Communion was going to be observed at a later date. Regarding Communion and regarding Baptism I was surprised to hear Mars Hill Albuquerque’s position, namely that Baptism is an act of obedience and Communion is a symbol. These are the positions I’m accustomed to seeing in evangelical circles, but I’m still surprised when Reformed folks don’t call them something else. It is after all my understanding that most of the Christians who ever lived saw baptism as being part of salvation somehow, and saw Communion as participation in a group identity, or a means of grace, or something more than just a symbol.
Which I guess brings me full circle on Mars Hill Albuquerque: after one visit I still get the impression that they’re a complicated evangelical/Reformed hybrid, with some megachurch tendencies and some hidebound Reformed tendencies, and I’ll be interested to see what becomes of them over time.
Some weeks ago now I covered the opening section of the sermon we heard at Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) back in early December [link], based on the verse Isaiah 9:6, and the pastor, Dave Bruskas, making the abrupt transition to Paul’s letters after noting that Jesus is “a military strategist.”
He turned to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 [NIV]; this is one of Paul’s key texts, where he sets apart what God is doing in Christianity from what would be expected by contemporary Jews and the contrasting expectations of contemporary Greeks.
Dave says “What is Jesus’s war strategy? The word of the Cross.” Jesus lived to conquer and died under the oppression of the Roman government. Why? To destroy wisdom and discernment: God is saying “I’m not going to do what you expect,” and glorifies himself in us.
Dave then leaves the text to tell a story about being at a park in Albuquerque with some MHA people, and about meeting a guy who found their group attractive because it was a church full of weird people. This rhetorical flourish, of telling a too-perfect, probably-not-true, self-congratulating story, is something Dave Bruskas does more than once during this sermon. He’s hardly the only preacher who does this, but it’s something I’d encourage visitors to be aware of when listening to him.
Back at the text he returns to verse 21: “it pleased God.” God can’t be reached intellectually, so He reaches down to us through the Incarnation. Note that verse 21 doesn’t mention the Incarnation; it’s one of the things that makes this passage an awkward fit with Isaiah 9:6.
Dave then dives into the central idea of the text in 1 Corinthians: “Jews demand signs; Greeks look for wisdom” instead we get Christ. Dave states this as “the Jews demanded a conquering King” and stumbled over the Crucifixion. He warns us against being “Jewish in perspective” by wanting something from Jesus in exchange for our loyalty: relationships, health, freedom from recurring sins, etc.
He then proceeds with his second too-perfect anecdote, about a gay man who came to see him in his office; Dave responded to him by saying that being gay is “not God’s best for him” and that “Jesus should transform him;” the too-perfect part of this story was that this was exactly what the man wanted to hear. Dave didn’t mention what became of the man, but that’s not really part of the story: the story is really about how Jesus doesn’t offer something we’re looking for (e.g. a personal sign), so it isn’t germane what became of the man in his story.
Dave’s basic point here: that salvation is not primarily a story about us, and that Jesus doesn’t offer us things that are attractive per se, is orthodox and Scriptural. But the way he puts the story together is awkward at best: he has a mix of texts that don’t really go together and stories that don’t ring true.
This seems like as good a stopping point as any; I’ll save his discussion of the Greeks and his wrap-up for one last post. I’d encourage readers to listen to the sermon themselves at the link above and decide for themselves if I’m being picky, or mixing majors and minors, or whatever.
Maybe I’m just quibbling here, but this is one of the problems with preaching from Paul’s letters during Advent: the Advent is about the Incarnation, and the temptation of most Reformed types is to read Paul as talking about Jesus exclusively as Savior, and it’s hard work to keep those two doctrinal concepts connected without subordinating one to the other. If we make the Incarnation entirely about “baby Jesus” we can stray off into territory that isn’t entirely orthodox, but without the Incarnation our soteriology isn’t strictly speaking orthodox either. I think Dave’s making the common Reformed mistake of losing the Incarnation in his Reformed soteriology.
So the sermon I heard at PRBC [link] is at this writing the 18th in a series of 20 (so far) on the book of Romans. The series appears to be literally verse-by-verse, meaning that Fry covers a verse each sermon, more or less. There are roughly 430 verses in the book of Romans, so it’s probably reasonable to expect that Fry will still be in the book of Romans five years from now and it’s not unthinkable that he might still be there ten years from now. So it may or may not be fair to expect that the sermon I heard is representative of anything, even of this series.
That being said, this appears to be a fairly workmanlike example of a single-verse sermon: an opening illustration; a reading of the verse in context; three points, each with an accompanying story or illustration; and a closing illustration. Fry never says “here’s my outline in three points,” (and thank goodness) and he doesn’t phrase the three points the same way twice, but on the other hand he doesn’t really seem to be preaching to the outline and the three points don’t alliterate or rhyme (again, thank goodness). There’s always a risk when using a formal structure like this that the Scripture used and the points drawn from it will be overshadowed by the points or the illustrations. I think it’s fairly safe to say that doesn’t happen in this case. This is a fairly solid Reformed sermon based on a Reformed proof text.
I am a big fan of expository teaching; in fact, when I sermon starts I’m typically fidgety from the moment the preacher starts talking until he starts reading Scripture. I’m always looking for the foundation of the sermon, and I’m wary of sermons that appear to be founded on stories, illustrations, the authority of the pulpit, tradition, etc. The down side to expository teaching is that so many Scripture passages are thorny things, with phrases that do not appear to contribute to the passage’s plain meaning, and when a preacher sets about using a short text he faces three problems:
- Presenting the passage in the context of the whole of Scripture
- Presenting the passage so it fits the surrounding greater text
- Dealing with these troublesome phrases
For many Reformed preachers the book of Romans is the whole of Scripture, so I’ll give Fry a pass here. And he did read the verse in the context of the surrounding verses, so I’ll note that he did that. The problem, though, is that there are three thorny problems with this passage:
- What is the righteousness of God? Is it something He gives? Something He has but no one else does? Etc.
- What does Paul mean by “from faith to faith?”
- Why Habakkuk? How does Paul’s understanding and portrayal of the quote [KJV] fit its original context? Are Paul and Habakkuk saying the same thing? If so how and if not why not?
Fry namechecks the first two but doesn’t dig into them, and he mentions Habakkuk but doesn’t go back to the original context; it’s as if he considers Paul’s reading (or maybe the 16th century understanding of the quote) to be normative and doesn’t consider the continuity (or the contrast) between the original meaning and later understandings at all. I realize this is a high standard, but I think it’s appropriate for someone doing a verse a sermon.
Fry also tends to leave important terms (“righteousness,” “gospel,” and to a lesser degree “justice”) undefined. This is a pitfall of anyone who prizes “strong doctrine” at the expense of other values; it’s possible to start on a firm foundation and end on a firm foundation but leave the audience with things that can only be understood and believed theoretically. And I’m afraid that’s what happens here.
Finally, there’s Fry’s delivery. Fry is a shouter. Or a dramatic reader. Or something like that. I suspect this is more or less the delivery he learned in seminary, probably at a time when seminary professors had less practice using microphones, etc. and Fry has never seriously reconsidered his delivery. I suspect this because his volume rises at odd times, on phrases that don’t necessarily need emphasis, and he did not seem to be getting worked up emotionally in a way that corresponded with his tone of voice. Preachers shout for many reasons (see e.g. [link]), and I have a hard time pigeonholing Fry’s delivery against the popular explanations.
I choose to believe that shouting is something of a generational thing, as younger preachers (e.g. 50 and younger) are less likely to shout than older preachers. I have to hope that good acoustic spaces and inexpensive amplification will eventually make this a rare phenomenon. It’s one of the remaining rhetorical tricks still in wide use (anaphora being another) that I think distracts from the message rather than contributing to it or supporting it.
Whenever I visit a church I wonder why the people who are there stay there. My best guess in the case of PRBC is that the people there want to hear Reformed doctrine affirmed, like the conservative music, and appreciate the linear, straightforward presentation, so they’re willing to tolerate a little shouting. I hope for their sake it’s not just because they e.g. like being around James White.
Ah yes James White. I think there’s one more post left in this series, and I’m hoping to get back to him in it.