I was once taught that there are three levels of theological error - technical error, serious error, and fatal error. (These categories may not be the most helpful, but we'll use them for the moment.) So for example, someone who confuses God's aseity with His ubiquity is making a technical error that is simple and definitional with little or no consequence. However, someone who believes that drinking alcohol is always immoral for everyone is in serious danger of being unnecessarily divisive and legalistic. It is theological error with serious consequences.
Unfortunately, distinguishing serious error from fatal error is really tricky. How much theological error is too much? Can you reject God's immutability in favor of "process theology" and be a Christian? Serious or fatal? How about a mechanistic understanding of the sacraments? Serious or fatal? How about being a universalist? Serious or fatal? The list goes on and on.
In my dotage I am much more reticent to identify fatal error in someone who heartily affirms the Trinitarian and historical-Biblical-theological tenents of the Nicene Creed - even if they aren't familiar with the creed(s) at all. Heck, I think you could potentially strip-down what it takes to be a Christian even more. Hebrews 11:6 reads, "...because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." Now clearly, Hebrews teaches a robust understanding of Christianity and the kind of faith that it entails. And yet... faith is simple and should not be overly complicated with theological nuance. Yes, we should pursue orthodoxy and Christian maturity, but we should be very cautious about citing fatal error in those who are simply immature and / or ill-taught.
I once had the opportunity to spend three hours with the Reformed theologian, John Gerstner. I asked him, "Is believing in the tenents of the Apostles' Creed enough to be a Christian?" He became very animated and said, "No! Not anymore!" He went on to say that the early creeds only dealt with controversies of the early church - there have been many important issues since then that simply must be affirmed and / or denied. I agree that there have been many issues that need to be wrestled with, but I would put almost all of them in the category of serious error and not fatal error.
Perhaps the reason for my reticence is that I am fearful of my own error(s) - and trusting and hoping for mercy now and in judgment. I willl be shown mercy as I show mercy, so I am in no hurry to condemn error as fatal if there is any hope or room for diagnosing serious error.
Is this not the practical outworking of "sola gratia?" How can those who hold to this be so quick to cite errors as fatal? Perhaps I am just a liberal afterall...
One of the reasons Baptists and Presbapterians fail to understand the full import of baptism is that they don't fundamentally understand the role of circumcision in the Old Covenant. The apostle Paul wrote of Abraham,
"And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe..." (Romans 4:11)
Let's camp out on this for a second. How is cutting off the end of Abraham's genitalia remotely related to faith? What did his foreskin have to do with trusting in God? In short, everything.
Abraham received a promise of a Seed (Messiah) and that he would be the father of many nations. The challenge was that Abraham's aged wife, Sarah, wasn't getting pregnant... So, they took matters into their own hands and used a surrogate mother, Hagar, to get the job done. Ishmael was soon born to Hagar, and it is directly after this episode that God gives the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17. God in effect says to Abraham, "No, the Promise is not coming through your use of a surrogate to get the job done. It isn't coming through your efforts, but by My grace. My promise will be accomplished by Me, not by you. To help underscore this in a major way, I want you and your posterity to cut off the end of your penises. I think that will help you remember that this is all about faith and trusting Me."
There you have it. There was an unmistakable connection between the trimming of Abraham's "manhood" and "the righteousness of faith." Circumcision was not about good hygiene or cleanliness. It was a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith in God's Promise(s).
And so it is with baptism. When our children receive the promise that is "to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off," (Acts 2:39) they are receiving the sign and seal of the righteousness of faith. The faith they have is not and will not be "from" us, but from God and His promises. We are people of the Promise(s), and baptism, like circumcision, points the way (Col. 2:11,12). The way of faith.
Anyone who knows me knows that my positions on any given subject tend to morph over time. We're not usually talking about wholesale changes, but definitely the tendency to drift from hard-and-fast to loose-and-open. The most recent and radical example of this is my position on using "contemporary" worship music in church.
You have to first understand that I grew up playing classical piano and taking enough music theory to be a relatively hard-core aesthetic elitist. I did some varisty sports in high school, but most of my extra-curricular energies were spent in choirs and such. Don't get me wrong, I like The Doobie Brothers, Sting, James Brown, etc., but have generally thought of certain genres as being too "amateurish" and individualistic for throne room worship. Enough of the I, IV, V, chord progression already.
While I still think a lot of pop Christian music is amateurish, overly individualistic, lacking in content, sappy, etc., I have had several revelations. First, most of the hymnody in the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition is crusty, stale, boring, unsingable, overly individualistic, and plain bad music. Sure, there is good stuff that we should hang on to and perpetuate. But a lot of the stuff "traditional" / "liturgical" churches try to sing is just literally stuck in its own time-bound culture. In American Presbyterianism, most of the hymnody comes from the glory days of Presbyteriansim about 100-200 years ago. It may have been the high-water mark of the tradition in America, but its failure to flex with the culture is a symptom of its disease - and a reason for its demise.
Let me try to explain. One of the reasons "Evangelical" churches using pop music are bigger and more active than traditional "Reformed" churches is because their music is culturally accessible. More people would come to and grow into liturgical and Reformed churches if they could connect with the music. Visitors and neophytes simply cannot digest an anachronistic 4-point harmony written in 1820 with an organ or lame piano in the background. This becomes a huge barrier to them dealing with the ministry of word and sacrament. I challenge you. Go to the average traditional worship service and contrast it with a bigger Evangelical church with a "band." I GUARANTEE you that the worshippers in the Evangelical service are more joyful, engaged, and emotive than folks in Reformed churches. Guarantee it.
We have to get over the impulse that pop music or even jazz in church is somehow beneath God. Yes, we should be intentional and strive for excellence, but no genre has a corner on holiness or propriety. It takes wisdom to discern what is out of bounds, but it also takes wisdom to know what can be included for the sake of edification. Simplistic thinking about this matter will not serve the church well.
As for me, I've joined the band at church on an intermittent basis. Hard to believe, but true. It is stretching, but a lot of fun and a blessing.
Last weekend I was in San Antonio, TX, for a business trip. I missed church in the morning because I was in transit, but I had the afternoon to myself. Since I had no commitments I decided to explore downtown - and as I did I stumbled upon one of the historic churches / cathedrals in the center of the city. It seemed very good and right to go in to spend time in prayer, so I went in to grab a pew and a kneeler and get to work...
Little did I realize that I had stumbled into five o'clock Mass. Rather than turn tail and run I thought it would be fun to at least observe since I don't often have that opportunity. Within minutes I was more than a spectator. What struck me first was the cruciform layout of the seats. The pews were arranged in the shape of a cross and the Table was at the center of the cross. "Cool," I thought to myself. Then we were called to worship by this young woman with the most angelic voice I ever heard. This was followed by Scripture readings, a confession of sin, beautiful hymns (not the stale 18-19th century crud in the Trinity Hymnal!), a recitation of the Nicene Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. I recognized I was being swept into this but remained pretty skeptical until we came to the Homily. Surely, I thought, they would stumble here. They didn't. The young Hispanic Priest preached a very fine sermon from The Gospel of Matthew. Very fine.
And so there I was, in a Roman Catholic church in San Antonio, TX, with a decision. Do I take the eucharist or not? I realized that if I could say the same creed, prayers, and worship the same Lord, not partaking would be an act of high-handed sectarianism. I wondered if they would want me, a Presbyterian guy, to come to the table. Would it be okay? What should I do? I frantically grabbed at the literature in the pew and came across this statement in their worship bulletin:
"Guidelines for the Reception of Communion - For Fellow Christians"
We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this eucharist will draw us closer to one another begin to dispel the sad divisions that separate us. We pray these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ's prayer for us "that they may all be one" (John 17:21).
That was all I needed. I got up and celebrated the eucharist with my brothers and sisters in the Roman church.
Go ahead. Call me an ecumaniac. Guilty as charged.
I am fascinated by organizational design and culture in business, church life, and wherever else I stumble upon it. Watching the way people behave as individuals within their working context is very revealing at many levels - and trying to change organizational behavior is even more interesting. I had to do a fair amount of reading on this during my MBA program so while I am not an expert in this area, I have developed a high appreciation for those who spend their careers trying to make sense of it all...
Yesterday I picked up a book called, "Tribal Leadership," by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. The paradigm that they are asserting is based on years of research on "twenty-four thousand people in two dozen organization, with members around the world..." What they have discovered is that people operate in tribes of 20-150 people. Each person in the tribe and tribe itself is characterized by the language they use to self-assess as seen in this table:
For whatever it is worth, I think this is truly insightful and brilliant. It totally resonates with my experience. I haven't digested the whole book, but the goal is to chronicle how people move through the stages with tips on how to be an effective tribal leader. I can't wait to dive in deeper.
Think about this for a moment as it applies to church. How rare is it to find a "Stage 5" church? Rare indeed. The church is full of victims, warriors, and pockets of tribal pride. We need more tribal leaders in the church to lead us back to the heavenly experience of "innocent wonderment" where "life is great."
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you..." (Matt 28:19,20)
Almost every time I have heard The Great Commission uttered, preached, or explained, people seem to understand it as taking the Gospel to every individual person in every country. It is as if they translate it as saying, "Go and evangelize every person everywhere." I have come to believe that it means so much more than that.
Without getting into a lexical debate, check this out for kicks. One Greek lexicon defines the Greek word, "ethnos," (nation) as, "The largest unit into which the people of the world are divided on the basis of their constituting a socio-political community." In the New Testament, "ethnos" is also used to denote "Gentiles" or non-Israelites, but in many texts it also has clear political / nation-state connotations (Mt 24:7, Mt 24:14, Mk 11:17, Jn 18:35, Acts 24:17). I suppose you could argue that the word in the context of Matt 28 could just as easily be rendered, "heathen," or "Gentiles," but I think you would be ignoring the rest of Scripture.
The good news of the Gospel is that God is restoring the whole world, not just individual souls residing in each country on earth. The Gospel extends to every part of life and every system - even political ones. Jesus isn't called the "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" for nothing. God's promise to Abraham wasn't just that he would be the father of the Jews. God's promise was that Abraham would "be a father of many nations." (Gen 17:4-6) In Romans 4:13, Paul interprets this as meaning that Abraham would "be the heir of the world."
It is unsettling for many Evangelicals in America to realize that the United States is not a Christian nation. Our systems may have the residue of "Judeo-Christian" ethics, but our nation itself has not been discipled. Individual souls may have been converted, but our systems are fundamentally secular and separated from the Gospel and the word of God. I don't know what to expect in the case of the United States, but I do believe that in time the church will succeed in discipling all nations. (Acts 3:19-21)
If you find yourself in a "Reformed / Presbyterian" church and your pastor says that your covenant children need to be "evangelized," I've got news for you. Your pastor isn't really Reformed or Presbyterian. He is really a Baptist. He may not be dispensational. He may not be Arminian or immersionist. But he is a Baptist nevertheless.
Don't get me wrong, I love Baptists. I just don't appreciate Baptists masquerading as Presbyterians on this issue. Covenant children need covenant nurture and catechism, not evangelism. Covenant children need to hear the Gospel, but they don't hear it as someone outside of the promises and oracles of God. No. They hear it as part of the family. They hear it as those to whom God has said, "I will be your God and you will be My people." It isn't an "if-then" statement, it is a "is-and" statement.
Evangelism is for those who aren't family yet. They're invited to be a part of the family. We proclaim, persuade, and pray for them to become brothers and sisters. But we are aware that they have no share yet in the "covenants of promise." It is a whole different animal than covenant nurture.
And that is the rub. Consistent Baptists and inconsistent Presbyterians flatten the distinction between children of believers and people outside of the faith. They think they both need to be evangelized. What a cruel knot for covenant children to untangle. "Ok, Billy, let's pray together before bed." "Billy! You need to repent and believe or you will go to hell!" "Billy, let's sing, 'Jesus loves me.'" "Billy, you need to make a profession of faith before the church!" "Billy, great job memorizing your Bible verse this week!" "Billy, I hope you accept Jesus in your heart at church camp." "Billy, you can't have communion until you're old enough to understand what you're doing."
Let's help Billy and stop the schizophrenia. Let's start by recognizing Baptist theology when we encounter it.
I participated in a new small group this morning at church and we started by going around the table sharing testimonies. We came to one of the elder statesman of the church and he started by saying, "I became a Christian during my mother's second trimester." I don't believe he was kidding.
Beautiful. I love that statement. My pastor in Austin, TX, would say during baptisms that his hope and prayer was that the children of the church would never know a day they didn't know Jesus. Amen!
During my Ancient Hope (CREC) days I had big dreams and PPT was a result of some of those. I am heartened by those who signed the document and the renewal movement which it has helped spur on. I was and continue to be disappointed by those who only seized it as an opportunity to further factionalize, but... I did what I thought was right. Go ahead, call me an ecumaniac. I can take it.