Losing Community, Losing Wisdom

Dinner party conversation

When political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000, the evocative title neatly captured a social disintegration which Putnam traced back more than a generation. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, essentially every form of civic engagement, from hanging out at a bar to volunteering with the PTA, declined significantly as American society became more atomized and Americans became more isolated.

In the nearly two decades since Bowling Alone came out, we have become more busy, more mobile, and more digital, but no more connected.

This social disconnection extends into American Christianity, as professed Christians are increasingly unlikely to regularly attend church and even less likely to be part of a church community where they experience meaningful discipleship and fellowship. Like most of our lives, religion is an increasingly do-it-yourself affair. And among a thousand other consequences, this shift has made it much harder for us to grapple with questions which require wisdom.

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An Internet Pastor Is Not All the Teaching You Need

Listening to a sermon on headphones

The Bible is quite clear in its expectation that being a Christian is a community experience. From the Lord’s Prayer’s appeal to “Our Father who is in heaven,” to Paul’s frequent references to the church as a single body with Christ as the head, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a shared, communal sacrament, the Scriptures take it for granted that our faith entails horizontal relationships as well as vertical. And not just any sort of relationships, but relationships within an organized local church. So Paul considered it a matter of utmost important to appoint elders over local congregations (cf Acts 14:23, I Tim 3, Titus 1); the same local congregations to which he collectively addressed his epistles. The author of Hebrews made it even more explicit, warning his readers against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb 10:25).

The Bible expects—or rather, directs—that the normal Christian life is a life embedded within a local church body. That is particularly important for us to remember in our individualistic American context, with an internet full of rich, compelling, biblical preaching available for streaming to our heart’s content. When I can listen to Tim Keller or Sinclair Ferguson with the click of a button, why bother with a local church where the preaching is (let’s face it) probably not as good?

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Men, Church, and ‘Laboring Alongside’

Men working

I have a challenge for men out there: Spend a couple hours working with another guy on some project at which you’re both pretty competent. It doesn’t matter what it is. While you’re working you are not allowed to talk about yourselves or about anything other than the project itself. Just pound in the nails or debug the code or do whatever it is you’re doing. Then, when you’re done, try not to feel a sense of respect and comradery with your work-buddy.

I doubt you’ll be able to prevent it.

It has become almost a cliché to point out that men naturally relate to one another side by side, while women relate face to face. Generally speaking, men bond though shared effort. Women bond through shared emotion. It’s not an absolute distinction, of course, but it’s a strong tendency. It’s just how we’re built.

It’s worth thinking about how this affects our faith and our churches. When you think of church, what comes to mind? A loving, welcoming, friendly place? What about when you think of God? A loving heavenly Father who welcomes our worship and listens when we talk to him? American Christianity has a lot of face to face, but not much side by side.

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Don’t Let a Fight Against Error Kill Your Love

Caution cone on keyboard

Last week’s article wasn’t supposed to be an article. I started out writing an opening illustration for a different point, but it took on a life of its own and I ended up with a whole post about the dangers of getting so caught up in the fight against racism, sexism, and other ugly -isms that we forget Jesus’ command to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies. We must always remember that Satan loves to tempt us to fight the right fight in the wrong way… Which I suppose still works as an opening observation to bring us around to what I meant to talk about last Monday. Because there is more than one “good fight” which can become an idol. For many conservative, Bible-believing Christians, one of the most potentially dangerous good fights is the battle against error in the church.

Are you entirely satisfied with everything taught by every part of the American church? I thought not. Neither am I. From churches which don’t bother to teach the Bible to churches which outright teach against the Bible, there is every reason to be concerned about the spiritual health of many of the professing Christians around us. And such caution is appropriate and biblical. Paul warned Roman believers, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom 16:17). Corruption in the church is the worst kind of corruption, because it dishonors the name of Christ and destroys our witness to the world. Vigilance is essential—but vigilance has a way of killing our love.

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A Practical Guide to Saving a Nation

Praying hands

I cannot count how many times I have heard someone say about the upcoming election, “2016 is our last chance to turn this thing around.” It’s the right instinct, the right sense of urgency, but the wrong focus. In the grand scheme of things, presidential elections just don’t matter that much. Yes, yes, I know: Supreme Court nominations, etc., etc. But in the grand scheme of things, the Supreme Court doesn’t matter that much either.

Take Roe v. Wade. It is true, more than 50 million unborn children have been massacred since 1973, but which is the bigger problem: That millions of mothers chose to kill their unborn children, or that the court let them do it?

We have to get out of the mindset which sleeps through the battle for hearts and minds and then tries to win a last-minute victory in the court system or the Oval Office. Secular liberalism controls education, entertainment, and media, but we imagine we’ll fix things by casting a ballot. Ultimately, the problem isn’t political at all—it’s a matter of cultural decay, because “the salt has lost its taste” (Matt 5:13). If you feel a sense of urgency about the direction of our country (and you should), the ultimate answer is gospel, not politics.

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Thoughts on denominationalism

I recently completed a paper on my “Ecclesiological Identity” that afforded an interesting opportunity for thinking through my opinions on a variety of topics. The following is a modified and expanded excerpt on denominationalism.

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes, “After protesting Catholic excesses, Protestants started protesting each other. Whenever a Protestant group manifested a problem – complacency, confusion, weak leadership, whatever – a subgroup would arise from within and protest these failures. Then they would break away, often damning the group which they left, proclaiming themselves the truly reformed, truly protestant, truly pure, truly right, truly true, and so on… This competitive Protestant religious market eventually spawned a kind of infomercial mentality, where each group advertised its unique features, seeking loyal customers for their religious products and services.” The list of things upon which I disagree with McLaren is a long one, but on this topic, as on many others, he is an insightful commentator.

As a member of any Christian denomination, it is possible to divide one’s beliefs into two categories: Those shared with all other Christians, and those distinct to one’s own denomination. There can be only one reason for a denomination to exist, and it rests squarely on the latter set of beliefs; those its adherents hold in opposition to other Christians. Any apologetic for the denomination qua denomination must focus on those beliefs, and only on those beliefs. The more important and central a theological belief is, the less likely that it is crucial to one’s denominational identity, and vice versa. If I am asked why I am a Christian, I point to Jesus. If I am asked why I am a Baptist, pointing to Jesus is irrelevant, for any other Christian can do the same. So I point not to Jesus, but to baptism by immersion. If I am asked why I am a Presbyterian, I point not to Jesus, but to government by elected elders.

Does this mean Jesus is unimportant to Baptists, Presbyterians, or any other denomination? Or that one could not start from Jesus to explain one’s Christian faith, and then work back to more specific denominational distinctives? Of course not. However, by setting up a system in which disagreements with other Christians on matters of secondary importance form the basis for group identity within the Church, we are unavoidably disordering our priorities in a way that sets the stage for the “fleshly… jealousy and strife” that Paul criticizes among those in Corinth whose first allegiance was to Paul or Apollos, rather than Christ (I Cor. 3:3-4).

This is not to suggest that our potentials to be a good Christian and a good Baptist (or Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), are necessarily inversely related. It is certainly possible to hold one’s theological beliefs in a proper hierarchy of importance while using a denominational label as a shorthand description of certain of those beliefs. However, denominational identity so strongly pulls towards a disordering of theological priorities and a fracturing of Christian unity that it may not be worth the risk for a people who are called to remember that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6a).

I will close by attempting to respond to one possible objection: “Disagreement is inevitable among Christians who are forced to squint ‘through a mirror darkly’ in this life. If I disagree with your belief about baptism, church government, or worship, why shouldn’t I join with other Christians who share my beliefs?”

I recently heard a Baptist professor talking about how much he valued the fact that Southern Baptists are able to amicably discuss issues such as the extent of the atonement, the proper place for church discipline, and proper modes of worship. Had I asked him why he didn’t mind disagreement among his brethern on such topics, he doubtless would have responded, “Why not? After all, we are all Southern Baptists.”

And we are all Christians. There is certainly a place for disagreement and discussion, with divine revelation as the final arbiter between varying opinions, but I have to wonder what the Church would look like if we were willing to extend to all those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ the same grace we extend those who share our denominational label. What if we were simply members of the Church seeking the truth together (and it must be the truth we are seeking, unless we want to end in jelly-spined ecumenism), rather than Baptists, Presbyterians, or Methodists defending our religious identity from those on the outside?