Benedict Option vs Presbyterian Option

I am a bit late adding my two cents to the debate surrounding the Benedict Option. While I have not read the book by Rod Dreher, I have kept up with the flurry of tweets, Facebook posts, and articles between Dreher and his detractors. Unfortunately, there has been some amateurish postures by Ph.Ds on both sides of this debate.

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My vocation is that of a Presbyterian minister, so I have an obligation to form an opinion on the issue of how Christians should relate to the culture around them. One might say that my sermons should address that topic almost every week if I want to disciple my flock.

While there is much to be said on this issue, I want to dig into my tradition as a Presbyterian as it relates to Christian ethics. There are two scriptural imperatives which Presbyterians have historically held as binding upon Christians today: Sabbath-keeping and tithing.

I won’t rehearse the arguments from covenant theology and the perpetuity of the moral law, but follow this thought experiment with me: What if the majority of American Christians kept the Sabbath and tithed their income?

On Sabbath keeping, I wonder what would happen to the ‘consumerism’ that millennials often complain about (but don’t actually change their consumer habits). Many restaurants would change their business model and become more like Chick-Fil-A, thus benefiting non-Christian restaurant workers who are forced to work on Sunday. After all, the “Sunday lunch crowd” is populated by mostly church-goers.

In addition, sports leagues like the National Football League would need to come up with a different game plan (no pun intended). The NFL is populated with Christians, so the Sabbath-keeping of these Christians would force the NFL to perhaps play its games on Saturday and make Sunday their ‘day off’ instead of Monday.

This, in turn, would push college football games back to Friday, which would make college football a much less lucrative business. Might this solve some of the controversies and scandals which currently plague college athletics?

Given that consumerism is a blanket critique by young secular people today when it comes to American culture, the church recovering its Sabbath witness might be an attractive option to non-Christians who need a rhythm to balance their work-play-rest rhythm.

Tithing. The sad news about tithing today is that only 5% of Christians tithe their income. This means that less than 10% of Christians actually give 10%! In addition, Christians give less per capita than Christians gave during the Great Depression.

But let’s say the Spirit revived the American church and Christians began to tithe. World hunger, healthcare, foreign missions, church planting, revitalizing smaller churches, Christian schools, etc. would all be affected. Perhaps the reason the welfare state and entitlements has increased is because tithing has decreased.

It isn’t difficult to fathom how the obedient generosity of Christians could shape our contemporary culture. Imagine if this Sunday every Christian tithed their income, our culture (and the world) would be turned upside down.

The Sabbath and the tithe are just two of God’s commands to his people. Just two. Obedience to just these two commands would make the Benedict Option unnecessary. Even if you are in a theological tradition which teaches that these two commands are no longer required for Christians, it’s difficult to dismiss the fruit which would come from obeying these commands.

There are books and conference galore trying to aid the church in navigating our contemporary culture’s secular force. There are parachurch ministries trying to aid the church in jumping on this or that social justice bandwagon. There are ministries trying to help churches think about bi-vocational ministry for their Pastors.

None of these things would be necessary if the church simply obeyed these two commandments of observing the Sabbath and giving the tithe.

Perhaps the Christian faith isn’t complex but rather simple to live out. Perhaps ‘transforming the culture’ isn’t complex but rather simple and covenantal.

Preaching & Pastoring: A Crucial Distinction

As a Pastor I was convicted by these wise words from the eighteenth century American Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller.

Dr. Samuel MillerMiller writes in his well-known Thoughts on Public Prayer, 

“How can a pastor preach intelligently and appropriately to his people, without knowing their state? And how is he to know their real state but by more or less intercourse with them in private…Every time that the pastor goes forth from his study to visit the families of his flock, it ought to be performed for the double purpose of conferring spiritual benefit on them, and receiving a benefit himself. If, for the attainment of the former purpose, he carry the gospel with affection and tenderness on his lips wherever he goes, his own knowledge of the real condition and wants of his people will be greatly enlarged, and his heart warmed with increasing love to the Saviour, and love and zeal for the salvation of souls, and the enlargement of that kingdom which is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

O, that ministers could be persuaded to realize that the best part of their preparation for the pulpit, that which is best adapted to impart the richest instructiveness, and the most touching unction to all its teachings, is, not to seclude themselves perpetually their studies – not to be for ever trimming the midnight lamp; but to go forth and put themselves often in contact with the cavils and the objections of the enemies of the gospel, as well as with the anxieties, the conflicts, the consolations, the joys, and the triumphs of Christian believers.”


Confessions of a Covetous Critic

The last few years in the American evangelical landscape has been fraught with controversy and heavy critique. Well-known ministries and Pastors, even going back a few decades, are now no longer doing ministry. The one thing in common is that these were large ministries and celebrity Pastors.

In all this we’ve seen the rise of the ‘above-the-fray’ critics. Pastors and educated laypeople tweet and post, “See, megachurches are bad news. Pastors with celebrity fame isn’t what God intended. We know better. Why can’t the broader evangelical church know better?”

I’ve been this critic. I’ve got my biblical, ecclesiological, and practical arguments down pat. I tell people, “Just wait until (fill in the blank) has a moral failure and steps down from the ministry.” Of course, I add the caveat, “I hope the Lord restores him and makes his church flourish and be faithful.” I mean, I don’t want to come across like a total jerk.

I now pause my mouth when it comes to the critiquing of megachurches, large parachurch ministries, and celebrity Pastors. Why? Because I have slowed down my heart and realized what is lurking beneath my criticism.

Deep down, I want what these celebrity Pastors have.

I am not saying everyone in ministry who engages in this critique has the same problem I have (though I suspect it is widespread). I am just speaking about me.

When I slow down to look at my heart, I see anger. I see envy and covetousness. I see my failure to obey the ninth commandment as outlined in the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Q. 147. What are the duties required in the tenth commandment?
A. The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.

Q. 148. What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.

Whenever I quip, “I never want to be a megachurch Pastor. I never want my church to become a megachurch,” I think I mean it. But, I do want my church to have less problems, run more smoothly, and grow. I want an increase in my salary. Maybe my church isn’t 2000 people, but 300 would be nice so that we can plant another church and have a network of church plants in my city that I (so awesomely) pioneered.

And while I don’t want to be on the stage for TGC, T4G, or some other huge conference which only invites celebrity Pastors to speak, I would like to speak at my denomination’s conferences or preach at our General Synod. That’d be cool.

I want a D.Min so that I can be invited to teach 2-3 classes a year on things like church planting, gospel neighboring, counseling, etc. I teach Rhetoric at a classical Christian high school, and one reason I do so is that at least one time a week a group of people listen to me and actually seem to respect me and do what I tell them to do. (As compared, to say, preaching.)

No, I don’t want to produce endless amounts of books with Crossway, Zondervan, or IVP. But a cool Wipf and Stock or Brazos published book or two would be nice. I’d get interviewed on a few podcasts…and maybe I get a part-time gig with Relevant Magazine.

On the local level, I don’t want to gloat and self-promote our church doing pool baptisms (who knows how many of those folks have been baptized before or are mere plants in the crowd), but I want a steady stream of adult converts that I get to baptize. You know, 4-5 a month. You see, we have a tithing problem and I need to give potential donors a reason to write us a check.

I don’t want to have a megachurch or be a celebrity Pastor. I want to be one of those more regional gurus that young Pastors respect so that I have to say no to the abundance of e-mails and phone calls of those who want my advice. My time is precious in this possible world I’ve constructed.

And of course I don’t want to be making six figures and have a handful of other Pastors know what I secretly make. But I want to have a comfortable life. My family deserves a nice vacation or two every year. Maybe $65,000-80,000 a year is good.

With these dreams come anger, resentment…covetousness. I break God’s law and violate God’s holy character the 99% of the time I criticize a celebrity Pastor or megachurch.

Whenever I say, “I’m so glad we aren’t a big church, and I’m glad I am an ordinary, insignificant Pastor,” I am actually coveting a particular size and ethos for my church. I am desiring a certain level of fame and income for myself.

The gospel I need to preach to myself is that God is being good to me in not giving me these things. God is even being good in showing me my pharisaical self-righteous heart in critiquing other Pastors and their ministries (Phil 1:15-18).

I don’t plan to radically change my philosophy of ministry. That isn’t the problem. If the greatest need for my flock is my personal holiness, then I need to put to death this sin that is covetousness crawling around in me and to put on Jesus’ contentment.

I’m bad at this. Please pray that, by the Spirit, I get better at lowering my expectations and have a life worth imitating to my church and neighborhood.

Church Refugees & the Church Solution

One of my delights in attending our denominational meeting (General Synod) every summer is the pre-Synod conference on evangelism sponsored by our denomination’s agency for church planting and revitalization, Outreach North America. When ONA was searching for a Director a couple of years ago I was actually tapped to help plan this conference with another Pastor for two straight years. I’d like to think this conference has been a benefit to our Pastors, Elders, and other ministry workers.

This past June, the speaker for this conference was Josh Packard, a sociologist and professor at the University of Northern Colorado and author of the well-received and challenging book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are Done With Church but Not Their Faith.

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Packard is an evangelical Christian who is a very competent researcher and scholar in his field. It is a blessing to have someone like him in the academy who uses his vocation to also serve the church. His book is a service to the church, and it has been read and received by many denominational officials, church planting networks, conferences, etc.

What is Packard’s thesis? In recent years, sociologists have done much research about the rise of the ‘nones’, i.e. those who claim no religious affiliation. However, another group on the rise are the ‘dones’, i.e. those who were once part of a religious institution but who, for various reasons, now reject such institutions while still claiming ‘faith’ in their lives.

Packard gives  helpful data on how this has affected the church in America and why churches need to be prepared to reach those in the pews who may be on their way out. While not a book trying to give theological or practical ministry advice to Pastors, Packard shared during our pre-Synod conference some wisdom on reaching the ‘dones’. His advice is somewhat standard and overlaps greatly with material from Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, Reggie McNeal, etc.

The interesting thing about Packard’s presentation was that he was speaking to a conservative, confession Presbyterian body. His material is well-received in more broadly evangelical circles, but confessional Presbyterians are markedly different from such evangelical groups. We come already with suspicions of church-growth movements, new techniques, or any “latest and greatest” fads.

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However, Packard’s research is not a fad. It is good for any denomination seeking to be faithful to the Great Commission to listen to and receive helpful sociological data in order that we might be “all things to all people.” (1 Cor 9:22) While the ‘sociology talk’ probably shouldn’t be the topic every year at our pre-Synod conference on evangelism, it is a helpful discussion to bring up every 3-5 years.

Packard has done the church a great service in providing a piece of the ministry contextual mosaic which is before us the North American church. Now, it is up to Doctors of the church and Pastor-Theologians (i.e. Pastors in the local church who engage in rich theological reflection and dialogue for the sake of the church and the public square) to diagnosis the problem of the ‘dones’ and begin offering gospel-centered remedies.

While I agree with Packard and others that authenticity, community, servanthood, mercy ministry, etc. are important things for a church to consider in reaching to the ‘dones’ in their pews, it seems that a deeper problem exists which puts typical complaints about the church into the second tier. Namely, the American church has, for multiple generations, exponentially dichotomized commitment to Jesus and commitment to the church. If three decades ago evangelicals were debating whether Jesus was both Lord and Savior for a Christian, today the issue is whether commitment to Jesus as well as his church is what marks out a Christian.

If the local church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation,” (WCF 19.2) and that a professing Christian “can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother,” (Cyprian of Carthage) but we have grand bulk of professing Christians who think the opposite of these things, then perhaps Pastors need to revisit this problem of the ‘dones’ by discipling, preaching, catechizing his people about the intimate connection between Jesus and the church.

It is obvious that when Packard says that ‘dones’ may have abandoned the church without abandoning their faith that he is speaking from the standpoint of his academic discipline and also trying to differentiate the ‘dones’ from the ‘nones’. Yet, for Pastors in the parish trying to minister to ‘dones’ on the way out it is important to closely unite faith in Jesus to commitment to the local church.

Of all people, Derek Webb gets this point. The former Caedmon’s Call member turned to edgy CCM singer-song writer was divorced from Sandra McCracken (another well-known CCM artist) after he committed adultery. Since that time, Derek no longer attends a local church on a regular basis. When asked in an interview if Derek was one of the ‘dones’ who says no to the church but still yes to faith in Jesus, Derek pushed back and said that he has never encountered a legitimate, orthodox form of Christianity which would dichotomize Jesus from the church in such a fashion.

Here is someone who is saying no to the church but who pushes back Christians and non-Christians who might try to categorize him as a Christian. Webb’s music lyrics always indicated a deep, heavy theology, and he still seems to have better theological chops than most American Christians today.

The precise remedy for emphasizing ecclesiology and the union Jesus has with the church is difficult because discipleship isn’t mere cognitive addition. Just telling the ‘dones’ that to be done with the church is to be done with Jesus is never enough. They need to fall in love with the church in a way that imitates Jesus’ love for the church.

Pastors, Elders, ministry workers, and Doctors of the church need to band together to sift through important sociological data so that we might understand the times (1 Chron 12:32), but we also need to reimagine dischipship through the lens of a biblical ecclesiology. And, our ecclesiastical praxes need to align with our biblical ecclesiology.

How the Bible Makes Me Believe in the Bible

As I take a seminary class on the New Testament canon this week, I’ve reflected on my own journey of receiving and trusting in the Bible as God’s Word.

While I enjoy, to an extent, all the apologetical ways and means of arriving to the conclusion that the Bible is God’s Word, my own personal experience has had me embrace the Bible through a different route.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (which I subscribe to as a Presbyterian minister) states in I.5,

“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

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The heavenliness, efficacy, majesty, coherence, excellencies, perfection, etc. of Scripture seem to persuade those who have come to know Jesus. Our hearts “burn” (Luke 24:32) and we want someone to connect the canonical dots for us (Acts 8:30-35).

More than ‘fulfilled prophecies’ or a ‘neutral’ historical investigation, my heart has been made receptive to the one Story that the Bible tells in which Jesus is the Hero.

This passage from Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books summarizes what I mean,

Genesis begins with the creation of the ‘heaven and earth’ (1:1ff.); Revelation ends with re-creation of the new ‘heaven and earth’ (21:1). Genesis begins with the theme of paradise in the garden (2:8ff); Revelation ends with the paradise of heaven (21:4). Genesis begins with the theme of marriage (2:8); Revelation ends with the great wedding of the Lamb (21:9). Genesis begins with a focus on the serpent’s deception (3:1ff); Revelation ends with the serpent’s destruction (20:10). Genesis begins with the curse being put on the world (3:14ff); Revelation ends with the curse being lifted (22:3). Genesis begins by describing the creation of day, night, and the oceans (1:3, 10, 14); Revelation ends with no more need for day (sun), or night, or oceans (21:1; 22:5). Genesis begins with the ‘tree of life’ among the people of God (2:9); Revelation ends with the ‘tree of life’ among the people of God (22:2). Genesis begins with God dwelling with his people (2:8; 3:8); Revelation ends with God finally dwelling with his people again (21:3).” (p. 157)