Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Faith and life

Do people make a church?

A church leader once told me “We have never seen it happen that a church would begin to drift away from the truth and then recover itself. When you see a church begin to drift, it’s time to get out and start over again.”

I have observed a lot of getting out and starting again over the years. Some people have given up on the whole idea of church and just meet at home with a few family or friends.

Where is Jesus in all of this? When Jesus said “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” He meant it. Why are  many people today so ready to believe that the gates of hell have prevailed against the church?

The rock is Jesus Himself, not Peter, not the words that Peter spoke. This is made plain when we consider other verses:
1 Corinthians 3:11: For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Isaiah 28:16: Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.
Acts 4:11: This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.

The New Testament portrays the church as a building or temple with Jesus as the foundation or corner stone, or as a body, of which Jesus is the head.

Jesus is the architect, the foundation and the builder of the church. Nowhere in the Bible do we read that we mere mortals are called upon to build the church, nor that we are capable of doing so.

People are running to and fro today, trying to find a church that fits their concept of what the church should be. Time after time they are disappointed.

I have been there and done that. After many such disappointments, I began to understand that while I had been searching for a church that fit my design, Jesus had been searching for people like me that He could form and shape to fit into the church that He has designed.

A little humility is in order here. We may be born again and be doing our best to live a life that conforms to our idea of what a Christian should be. But is our idea the same as Jesus’ idea? Just being willing to ask that question might break through our pride and stubbornness and allow Jesus to lead us to something far better than we could attain by our own efforts.

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Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

This game is rigged!

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We want to prosper in life, we want to have fun, we want to taste all the good things that are available to us. But we don’t find satisfaction in the things that promised pleasure, other people disappoint us, there never seems to be enough money to do all that we want, there is too much hurt and pain, sometimes it seems like life itself is conspiring against us.

Well, it’s true. This game is rigged. There is one right way to live this game of life and an endless variety of wrong ways. People tell to you try this, try that, this is where you can really find the thrill in life. Stop and take a close look at the people who make those promises. Do they seem happy, contented, at peace with themselves?

You have convinced yourself that only weak-minded people believe this God stuff. The soul, judgment, hell and heaven are just old wives tales to scare little children. This life is all there is and when it becomes unbearable the best thing is to stop living.

What if that idea was really just a tale to comfort weak-minded people? What if the death of the body is not the end of life, the soul lives on and there really will be a judgment? As much as you may try to block those thoughts from your mind, to drown them in loud music and furious activity, doesn’t that question pop into your mind at unguarded moments?

The soul is not some mythical add-on in your body; the soul is you, all that makes you who you are. The body is temporary, it will die but the soul will live on. The purpose of the game of life is to prepare us for everlasting joy. But if you decide that the only joy in life is what you can grasp for yourself right now, you are preparing yourself for endless misery and torment.

The rules of the game of life are simple. God revealed them many years ago to the prophet Micah: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (This is found in the Old Testament book of Micah, chapter 6 verse 8.)

You will find these rules often in the Holy Bible, in more detail and different phrasing, but this is the complete summary of what you need to know to win the game of life. Do what is right, be compassionate to others, and let God guide you. There is no way that you can outsmart the rules of the game of life. The game is rigged so that only those who accept the rules that God has given will experience true and lasting joy, peace and happiness, in this life and forever.

Spectator or participant?

Canadian politics just became much more interesting. Maxime Bernier has withdrawn from the Conservative Party, of which he almost became leader, to found a new political party. He is speaking up about issues that others want to avoid talking about and this has raised a storm of criticism. Perhaps he is starting a movement at just the opportune moment to bring the country back to the principles that unite us. Or perhaps his movement will fizzle out and just be a footnote in history. In either case the next few months promise to be interesting for political observers.

However, for those of us who are Christians, we must remember one thing: in politics we must remain spectators, not participants. Politics is a dirty business and no one who engages in politics, however pure his intentions, can avoid becoming soiled. Politics is he art of the compromise, but a compromise is seldom reached before a lot of grime and slime is slung about. Christians cannot win at such a game, unless they cease speaking and acting like Christians.

In the church we must be participants, not mere spectators. If we think the purpose of the church is to provide spiritual entertainment, we will be disappointed. But if we are looking for something to do that is meaningful and fulfilling, the church has a place for us. It may not be highly visible, but if that’s what we want we should ask ourselves if we understand what truly matters in life. There are people in the church who see things differently than we do. Listen to them, perhaps we have missed something. We should speak freely about the things that matter to us that they may have missed. We need to love them, and be lovable. Above all, follow the promoting of the Holy Spirit and trust that they are doing that too. When we are all led by the Holy Spirit the work we are doing will result in something far better than any one of us could have planned.

The truth can stand by itself

A friend likes to preface many of the things he says with:“Without a word of a lie.” For some reason I don’t find such a statement all that convincing. It makes me wonder if he is not accustomed to telling the truth.

I guess that’s why Jesus instructed us: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5:17). In other words, tell the truth all the time and people won’t have to wonder whether or not you are telling the truth this time.

Sometimes we attempt to shore up the truth with big words and adjectives, for fear that the unadorned truth is too weak to stand on its own. We’ve got that wrong. Our attempts to buttress the truth, to make it stronger, weaken it.

Do we plant dandelions and thistles in our flower beds for emphasis? If that sounds ridiculous, and it should, it’s just as ridiculous to think that we can add emphasis to the truth by throwing in a bunch of adjectives. They draw the hearer’s or reader’s attention away from the truth we are trying to present.

Christian jargon is just as bad. We may know exactly what we are trying to say, but to the hearer it is probably an unknown tongue. Words and expressions that have a profound meaning to a Christian have no meaning at all to most other people. If we wish to communicate the truth we need to use simple words that everybody can understand. That may take some time and effort on ur part. The thing about jargon is that after a number of years it becomes a way to avoid thinking about what we are saying.

The truth of the gospel does not need our help to stand. But it must be told. Let’s tell it simply and often.

Having fun is not the purpose of our life.

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Happiness is often confused with having fun. But ask yourself, isn’t the root of your desire for fun a wish to have your attention diverted from your problems, at least for a moment? To feel a constant need for amusement, entertainment, or recreation is self-defeating and even self-destructive.

If our happiness is dependent on what other people do, or on other people leaving us alone to do our own thing, they will always disappoint us and spoil our fun.

What is happiness? Isn’t it a feeling of contentment, a sense that things are going well? That’s what we really long for, isn’t it? It is not popularity, or a belief that everybody admires me, or envies me. “Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain.”

To paraphrase Solomon: “He that loveth fun shall not be satisfied with fun; nor he that loveth excitement with extreme thrills.” Fun will always disappoint us, we can never get enough to satisfy us.

The only reasonable thing to do then is to abandon all attempts to make ourselves happy and do our utmost to make others happy. Even then, happiness does not depend on the thankfulness of the other person, though that is sometimes an added benefit. It is quite alright if our kindness goes unnoticed, unseen by others.

Neither does happiness lie in slapping a band aid on someone’s wound, going my way and congratulating myself on what a good fellow I am. Helping someone else starts with listening. That may become painful and messy, but they need someone to listen. Sometimes that is all we can do. Sometimes that is enough.

True happiness lies in knowing that we have done something to make life a little better, a little less painful, for someone else. It is the feeling that we have done what we could.

What is a talent?

Jesus told a parable of a man going to a far country who distributed talents to his servants. The talents given in this parable were money, not ability, for it says that He gave “to every man according to his several ability” (Matthew 25:15).

After generations of misunderstanding this passage we have come to understand talent to mean ability. This is not such a bad thing, and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. But it is a serious misunderstanding to interpret the parable to mean that when we become Christians God will give us some new ability that we never had before. That is not taught in this parable, nor anywhere else in the Bible.

What this parable does teach is that God wants us to develop the abilities that we have so that they can be employed for the good of His Kingdom.

I was thinking of this the other day as we were in Saskatoon. Our first stop was at the Christian book store. I am impressed with all the staff here, but I’ll just mention one. This store has a loyalty program which requires the person at the till to enter the customer’s phone number. Tanaya never asks for my phone number, but the cash register slip always comes out with my name on it and a summary of my loyalty account.

This young lady obviously has a phenomenal memory, but that’s only part of it. I do not get preferred treatment over other customers, she makes every one of us feel that we are especially welcome in the store. We say she has a special talent for the job she is doing.

I don’t believe that this is a talent that was given her at the time of conversion, or any other particular moment. It is rather the result of her efforts to develop the abilities she had in a way that would be of helpt to thers.

The same day we had dinner with our friends Ray and Ruth. Ray is an accomplished artist; he has made his living by other means, but has been able to sell some of his art work for good prices. As a child he had an ability to see things around him in a way that allowed him to draw accurate representations.

His third grade school teacher remembers drawings of birds and animals on the margins of his school work. He has studied to refine and deepen the ability he began with. He painted a 60 foot mural in the church which he attends that depicts the history of the world from Creation to the Last Judgment. He also has a talent for teaching basic art techniques to children and people of all ages.

Finally I had an appointment with my eye doctor. This man has given me numerous injections for macular degeneration, which is now stable, and has done cataract surgery on both my eyes. His skill is the reason I can still see to type this post. Someone at the CNIB once told me that this doctor is the best in Western Canada for diseases of the retina.

For each one of us there is a way that we can develop whatever natural ability we have and put it to use in God’s kingdom. We should not feel that we are helpless until God grants us some special talent. Let us not despise the ability we already have, no matter how insignificant it may appear to us, and be ready and willing when He gives us an opportunity to put that ability to use for His honour and glory.

Paul, the master apologist

Being an apologist for the Christian faith may sound like expressing our regrets for being Christians. The true meaning is quite the opposite; it means being able to talk about our faith without fear or embarrassment, and to always be ready to “give an answer” (apologia) to those who ask about it.

The apostle Paul believed that the salvation that had been freely given to him made him a debtor to others. He owed it to the civilized and the uncivilized, the learned and the ignorant. (Romans 1:14) to tell them the good news of salvation . His faith in Jesus Christ empowered him to speak and write without shame or reticence (verses 15 & 16).

In order to fulfill this obligation he became all things to all people, able to relate to all people, no matter what their religion, ethnic origin or social status.

He used examples from the popular culture of the day to describe how a Christian should live. The Olympic Games had been held for over 800 years at the time of his ministry. So Paul spoke of Christian life as a foot race, an effort to reach the goal; and he spoke of the training, discipline and temperance that were required of an athlete.“They do it to obtain a temporal crown, we an eternal.”

He spoke of wrestling, explaining that our opponents in the wrestling match of life are not other people, but spirits and powers from the realm of darkness.

The Roman Empire extended over southern Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia. Roman soldiers were seen everywhere, ready to maintain order. Paul spoke of the discipline required of a soldier and how he must not entangle himself with things that would hinder his service.

In Athens he was brought before the philosopher judges on suspicion of introducing a new god. Athens had many gods but the law forbade anyone trying to add more. Paul began by mentioning the altar to an unknown god and saying that he was just explaining who that unknown god was. He then proceeded to piece together ideas and quotations that were familiar to the Epicureans and Stoics, leading up to a declaration that God would judge the world by one who had been resurrected from the dead. The men sitting in judgement had followed his reasoning up to this point, but now some mocked and others wanted more time to think about what they had heard. One of the judges believed, along with a few other Athenians.

Paul did not try to tell Gentiles that they first needed to learn to think like Jews to understand the story of salvation. He made himself familiar with the Gentile culture and used everyday things to explain Christian faith and life.

We don’t have to immerse ourselves in pop culture in order to follow Paul’s example. Yet, if we hold ourselves completely aloof from the people around us, how are we going to be able to talk to them? A good place to start would be to ask them questions, show an interest in their lives, rather than hoping they will be interested in us.

Peter writes that we should be ready to answer everyone that asks us the reason of the hope that we have. (1 Peter 3:15). Often we will catch subtle hints that people want to know, but don’t quite know where to begin or how to ask. Most people have preconceived ideas about Christians and will try to fit us into the framework of what they think they know. Here is an opportunity, not to unload a long explanation, but to tell a story or make some allusion to how the longings expressed in popular culture are in fact groping towards answers that can only come from faith in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics is best done by building a relationship with others and treating them with respect. We are not teachers with all the answers, just ordinary people with insights gained from our relationship with Jesus and with fellow believers.

Telling about our failures and how we learned from them will put us on the same level as others and make them feel that the kind of Christian faith we have is not something beyond their reach.

Charles de Gaulle and Christian apologetics

(First posted four years ago.)

Why do I think that talking about Charles de Gaulle will help to understand the purpose of Christian apologetics? Follow me as I try to explain.

The First World War was mostly fought on French soil, meaning that the people of France bore the greatest share of the war’s death, destruction and despair. After that war the French military and the government decided that they could protect themselves from a future German invasion by building massive fortifications along the border between the two countries – the Maginot Line.

Charles de Gaulle, as a young officer, realized it would never work. He told the generals that they were preparing for the previous war, that the next time the enemy came he would not come the same way as the last time. He proposed that rather than stationary fortifications the army needed battalions of light armoured vehicles – fast moving tanks that could respond quickly wherever a threat presented itself. He even wrote a book outlining his vision. The generals didn’t take this upstart very seriously, yet recognized his ability and humoured him by forming one such battalion, promoting him to general and putting him in charge.

In 1939 German panzer divisions with overwhelming numbers of tanks swept through Holland and Belgium and into France. De Gaulle’s battalion performed valiantly, but was heavily outnumbered and had little effect. Nevertheless, it was now evident that de Gaulle had been right.

What does this have to do with Christian apologetics? Let’s consider 1 Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear”. Three words, “give an answer,” are used here to translate the Greek word apologia, from which we get the word apologetics. Are we prepared to give an answer anywhere, any time, to “every man”? Not a specially prepared and rehearsed answer, but one that responds to the question that is asked?

Does it sometimes seem that Christians have a bunker mentality, somewhat like the French witth the Maginot line between the wars? We hide behind slogans and catch phrases, and avoid situations where we think we might face embarrassing questions or even ridicule. How can we prepare ourselves to face unexpected challenges?

Our task in defending the Christian faith is not to stave off critics with lengthy prepared answers, or even short prepared answers. Our task is to respond to the questions that people really have. Tom Skinner, the Harlem preacher, made this point forty years ago with a book entitled If Christ is the Answer – What are the Questions? Tom Skinner made the point that the first question someone asks is usually not the real question. We will need to ask questions in return to help uncover the real questions that people have.

This is why I have made the comparison with de Gaulle’s advocacy of a flexible defence that could move to wherever the danger was. We don’t use tanks in Christian apologetics, we use the Bible, the sword of the Lord. We should not use it as an offensive weapon, firing indiscriminately at everything that looks like it might be a threat.

Peter says to give an answer with meekness and fear. The Louis Second French translation says gentleness and respect. All these words imply humility. We are not trying to intimidate others with our superior knowledge. They will respect us more if we admit we don’t have all the answers. That could open the way to study the Bible together.

When God first promised the land of Canaan to Abraham He told him in Genesis 13:17: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.” The Bible is our heritage today and we should read through the length and breadth of it; become familiar with the lay of the land so that we will be able to point out the landmarks to others.

The military analogy can’t tell the whole story. Other people are not our enemies. If they act like enemies, it is due to the influence of the powers of darkness. Those powers are the real enemy, and our calling is to help people lose confidence in those destructive spiritual forces and turn away from them. We are not engaged in a battle where there will be a winner and a loser, we are not trying to score points. The point of apologetics is to lead people to consider what the Bible has to say and then let the Word of God and the Spirit of God do the heavy work of bringing light and conviction into their hearts.

What if the French leadership had listened to de Gaulle? What if the German Panzer divisions had been met by equally numerous, well-armed and swift moving French tank battalions? The Second World War might have ended very quickly, sparing millions of lives.

What if every born again Christian today was equipped and willing to confront the forces of darkness and “give an answer” for their faith? How many lives could be saved?

Africa rising

What picture comes to your mind when you think of Africa? A remote village of mud huts with scantily clad people scratching their subsistence from the soil with hand tools? Or modern cities with skyscrapers, factories, hospitals and universities?

Both scenarios exist, but far more people live in the cities. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, with the largest population. There are 20,000 millionaires in Nigeria nd 20 billionaires.

The wealthiest man in Nigeria is Aliko Dangote with interests in the manufacture of cement, sugar and petroleum products. The fourth wealthiest person in Nigeria is Folorunsho Alakija, a lady who started out as a fashion designer and now also has investments in the oil industry. She has created a foundation to help widows and orphans through scholarships and business grants.

Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of university graduation. Emigrants from Nigeria are among the most successful immigrants in Canada, the USA and the UK.
I believe it was at least 10 years ago that someone said that the heartland of evangelical Christianity is now in Africa, not North America. Nigerian churches see North America and Europe as mission fields. In Saskatoon, our nearest city, there are five or six congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, including one French-language congregation. There is also a congregation of the Deeper Christian Life Bible Church. The Anglican churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America have severed all ties with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the USA and are now guiding the establishment of a new Anglican movement in North America that is more true to the Bible, especially in the area of morality.

What is true of Nigeria is also true of other African countries in varying degrees. It is true that there is still much poverty in some places, but economic growth rates are astounding.

There are acts of terrorism in various places by hard line Islamists. I have no prophetic vision of how this is all going to play out in coming years, but I wonder if these acts might not a last ditch attempt to hold back the tide that they see sweeping over Africa.

Is it time to take a fresh look at Africa and African people? The evidence shows that these black-skinned people are in no way inferior to white-skinned people. We are equals, in intellect, in faith, in management ability, and we should respect each other as equals.
International aid has done more to hold Africa back than to help it move forward. Emergency aid in time of disaster is always in place, but it would probably be best to have it administered by local people as much as possible. Sending used clothing and mosquito nets may give us a worm glow, but does it undercut the local production of those goods?

Surely it’s time to revamp our selection of mission hymns. The idea of carrying the gospel to “every dark land” has always given a skewed idea of mission work; we need to find better ways to describe the practice of being ambassadors for Christ. The call to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints and to make disciples in all the world has not expired. But we render ourselves unfit for the task if some illusion of superiority still lingers in the way we relate to others.

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