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How your Church Website can Reach your Community with Service

October 31, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Evangelism, Leaky Jar, Sharing, Tech

Recently, I wrote a guest piece for the Theologia Ordinarius blog on a Theology of Church Web Design, which I hope you will consider reading if you haven’t already seen it. In my final point on that blog, I hinted at the possibility of churches using their websites to do more than simply provide basic information on their church to potential visitors and to act as a community-building resource for the congregation.

While it would be foolish for any church to neglect to potential impact of reaching out to others through its website, many churches are content to post logistical information on where and when to find a Sunday morning worship service and to tell visitors that they are “most welcome,” and conclude that they have done as much outreach as can be expected on the web. Realistically, your church website needs that information but the only visitors it will attract are those who are already Christian (note: this is a good thing, but not really outreach). This may not be the case in the Bible Belt where I understand (second-hand) that church-going is a cultural norm for many who have no faith, but it seems safe to say that most people who are not already Christians have no interest in visiting a church unless they are personally invited. This means that your website may be bringing in people who are new to your church, but not people who are new to the Church, those people who do not yet know Christ.

This does not mean that outreach to non-Christians online is impossible; it just requires some creativity. Despite the continuing prevalence of tracts and street-corner prophets, the most effective and faithful way to share the good news of Jesus Christ is to share it person-to-person, with Christians and the church community manifesting the love of God as the Holy Spirit works within them. While it is admittedly difficult for your church’s website to develop a person-to-person relationship with anyone, you can still use it to manifest God’s love for the people of your surrounding community by serving them.

There are undoubtedly endless ways that your church could serve the community through the web and I encourage you to ask your congregations to pray for the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration, but I would like to offer a few ideas to get the ball rolling, beginning by highlighting some of the needs that exist in most communities.

The Need for Hyper-Local News

In our day of globalized news coverage and the death of the small newspaper, it is increasingly difficult for people to find relevant news about their own community. When your neighbors tune in to the six o’clock news, they will primarily hear national reports with a smattering of the most sensational stories from their general metropolitan area. While local metropolitan newspapers are capable of better local coverage, they still often miss many stories and certainly are not capable of giving sustained focus to any town of less than 100,000 residents. Even in cities with excellent local journalism (e.g. New York City or Los Angeles) the newspaper is necessarily constrained to reporting on only the most apparently significant events, leaving the smaller communities (like the neighborhoods of TriBeCa and Queens in NYC, or individual cities like Inglewood or Azusa in LA) largely overlooked. Journalism alone cannot make a strong community, but it certainly is capable of strengthening communities.

Meeting the Need

Your church can easily develop a website with a social media presence that serves as a news hub for your community. While such a site will require an overseer to moderate and curate content, the vast majority of the content can easily be submitted by members of the content. The service your church provides in this context is that of serving as a reliable central location for all local news and events. By relying primarily upon reader-submitted content, your church not only has a much easier job but also begins to build a partnership with the people of your community who may begin to recognize their ability to help contribute in service to their neighbors.

A great example of this sort of hyper-local news is offered by Planet Princeton, a local resource for Princeton, NJ. While it is not in any way connected to a church, Planet Princeton serves as a useful model. Not only do they aggregate reader-contributed news and events, they have reliably relayed vital information on road closures, police advisories, and store closings in the recent October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene.

The Need for Easy Access to Community Resources

In the United States, poverty and need are rarely the result of too few resources existing in a community, but rather are rather the result poor resource allocation, ignorance concerning available services, and confusing systems for obtaining those services. For example, there are undoubtedly families in your community in need of an extra bed and other families with a spare box spring and mattress sitting in storage, but neither is aware of the other. In other cases, there are single mothers who qualify for welfare, food stamps, and discounts on heating fuel but who are either unaware of their eligibility or discouraged after trying to navigate the bureaucratic processes required to access these services. Likewise, there are unemployed residents who are in need of proper interview attire, resume-writing skills, and even a ride to their interview who are unaware of your church’s clothing distribution ministry, the public library’s resume workshop, and of the schedule of the local bus system.

Meeting the Need

Your church can empower and enable your neighbors to find and access resources in several ways. First, and most simply, you can provide a website with well-explained links and information on local resources. This might include links to the local unemployment office, city bus schedule, public library, and food pantries. On this level, your service would primarily be that of helping your neighbors to be aware of all the resources available them.

With a bit more effort, your church can provide not only links and information, but also guides to help your neighbors decide which available resources will be of the most use to them and tutorials to help them access those resources.

It is also possible to help connect people with needs to people with resources by providing a community sharing site, such as can be developed with resources like Kassi, Unstash, and NeighborGoods.

The Need for a Newcomer’s Guide to the Community

Whether we like it or not, we live in an increasingly mobile culture that almost ensures your community will constantly be acquiring residents who are new to the area, and those new residents will be weighed down with the stress of driving an unfamiliarly large U-Haul, finding a suitable home, settling into new jobs, meeting their new neighbors, and enrolling their children at new schools. Aside from those non-negotiable stresses, new residents face the strains of building new relationships; finding a grocery store, bank, coffee shop, mechanic, dry-cleaner, and restaurants; picking up local colloquialisms (i.e. the people of your town may have developed nicknames for local landmarks); learning the local laws and routines (e.g. noise curfew times and garbage pick-up days).

Meeting the Need

By this point, you will have guessed that your response to this need could be a website serving as a guide for newcomers. You can organize and neatly present the locations of post offices, city hall, grocery stores, mechanics, gas stations, parks, and much more. Your church might also provide a helpful guide to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the community: the local jargon, laws, and ordinances that are difficult to pick up otherwise. Of course, you can also extend an invitation to newcomers to find community within your church.

Final Thoughts

Every one of these needs may not exist in your community, but without doubt at least one of them does. Your church can choose to meet one or all of them, alone or in partnership with other local churches. By simply serving your community in this way and honestly acknowledging on the site that it is supported by your church, you will be fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love others while simultaneously helping the people of your community to recognize that your church is interested in loving them.

I’d love to hear what your churches are doing or hope to do along these lines. Please let me know about what you come up with below.

Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article

October 22, 2011 in Christian Unity, Christianity, Church, Church Planting, Leaky Jar

Editor’s Note: This post has had one line edited as it presented a critique of one of Jivanjee’s arguments in the language of an attack on his character. The author is sorry to have been irresponsible with his words and for any harm caused to a brother in Christ.

This post is written in response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article, “Faction-planting or church-planting?” per his request.

In his article, Jivanjee makes several commendable points:

  • The first, and most obvious, of these is that there exists in some American churches a sort of factionalism that fails to recognize the extent of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood across denominational lines or even across the street. Where such prideful division exists, it is certainly sinful and an impediment to the Gospel.
  • The second point to note is that churches can easily become personality cults in which the congregation’s life comes to center on the charismatic leader. This can easily lead to straying from the authority of Scripture and foster a division between the “ministers” and the “members” that denies the priesthood of all believers.
  • Third, there is a helpful emphasis on the concept of a “city church.” While I am not sure that I agree with Jivanjee’s exact understanding of the city church, I certainly share his enthusiasm for a certain type of unity and Christian love exhibited in the city church.

Going from Anecdotes to Universal Indictments

While I appreciate the above points, I find Jivanjee’s stance to be both overly cynical and simplistic with regard to actual church congregations in the United States apart from the abstract concept of American Churches. Read the rest of this entry →

A Definition of Evangelism

October 18, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Evangelism, Leaky Jar

For the sake of keeping my blog active, I am willing to serve leftovers.

In a course of evangelism, my group partner and I were required to compose a definition of evangelism in ten minutes. The following is the product of our ten-minute toil:

“Evangelism is the Christian’s participation in the Holy Spirit’s work of proclaiming the good news of salvation and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God made available through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Just as the Word was made flesh, so the gospel is contextually-spoken while simultaneously transforming its context.

The goal of evangelism is the making of disciples who, through the empowerment of the Spirit, live as holy citizens of God’s kingdom by worshipping the Triune God, proclaiming the good news, and loving one another as they love themselves.”

We wanted to make sure that our definition incorporated the foundational Christian doctrines (the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection) and that it defined evangelism as the proclamation of the Gospel message, distinct from the necessity of “witnessing by lifestyle.”

How would you define evangelism or tweak our definition? Please join the conversation below.

A Short Response to John Piper on Stuttering

October 15, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Leaky Jar, Preaching

Let’s be clear up-front: I am not one of those people who is generally antagonistic to John Piper. While I have not yet read any of his books, I generally appreciate his tweets and blog posts (at least those that I come across). With that said, two tweets of his have particularly irked me today:

John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
Preachers, beware whom you hear. Academic stuttering, and the ubiquitous “um” and “ah” do not make for prophetic utterance.
John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
The prophets give no evidence of ever using “um” or “ah”. These are weak, learned fillers and can be unlearned for Christ.

Although I want to be charitable, I am having a hard time understanding what could be behind these tweets (side note: if you have an idea or agree with Piper, please drop me a note below). The best motivation I can conceive of is a desire to see the Gospel proclaimed as clearly as possible, but this good desire should not be universalized or lifted to the position of the highest priority for one very important reason.

The Power of the Gospel is Made Manifest in Human Weakness

While it is important for preachers to hone their rhetorical skills for clear delivery of God’s word, Scripture consistently emphasizes the power of the Gospel itself rather than the importance of the preacher (except, of course, for the necessity of a preacher).

In the Parable of the Sower, it is the seed of the Gospel that holds the power to grow and bear fruit, not the skill of the sower. Likewise, in the Parables of the Mustard Tree and the Leaven, it is the power of the Gospel itself that is emphasized with no mention of a preacher at all, let alone oratorical ability.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes this statement,

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Here we find Paul claiming to have intentionally avoided eloquence and rhetorical flair when proclaiming the Gospel so that the Corinthians would not mistake the messenger for the message and that their faith may be nothing but a result of the Holy Spirit at work.

Similarly, when Moses was called by God to be His prophet, he objected because of his rhetorical inability (and possible speech impediment) but failed to change God’s mind:

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

Now, one might argue that God relented by allowing Aaron who was a gifted speaker to be Moses’ mouthpiece, but note that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Moses for claiming that he could not serve as God’s prophet because of a stutter.

Finally, let us return to Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians,

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

Here, Paul emphasizes that the Gospel’s glory is made manifest by shining in the midst of our own mortal imperfection. When a congregation hears the Word of God proclaimed and is transformed by that Word despite the preacher’s own flaws and imperfections, it is evident that the Holy Spirit must be at work, not the pathos of a rhetorician.

So, should preachers constantly seek to improve their preaching for the sake of clarity? Of course. Should they feel guilty for their rhetorical imperfections? Should young people sensing a call to the preaching ministry abdicate their calling because they are not a capable speaker? Of course not. To say otherwise is to emphasize the work of humans over the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Can God make a Rock so Big that He cannot Lift it?

October 3, 2011 in Apologetics, Christianity, Leaky Jar

Before I move on to answering the title question, please allow me to explain why I am answering this question when the answer is by no means original to me. When I was in middle school, this sort of question did not wreck my faith in God but it did shake me a bit. In working with middle school students today, I find that this type of question still holds resonance for junior high students (and others, no doubt!) and that while a simple answer exists, it is not particularly easy to come across unless you know where to look. By tossing this answer into the “inter-webs” I hope to make it that much easier to find. So, with that said…

Can God make a rock so big that He cannot lift it?

Large Granity StoneThe answer, in a word, is no.

Whoops, I guess you caught me in a trap. Now you will say, “If God cannot make such a big rock that He cannot lift it, then there is something that God cannot do, which means that God cannot be all-powerful.” Of course, if I has said yes, you would argue, “If God can make a rock He cannot lift,  then He cannot lift it which shows that there is something God cannot do.” It would seem as if you had just proven that there cannot be an all-powerful God.

It would seem that way, but unfortunately, this question poses an illogical question that cannot have an answer.

When we say that God is all-powerful, we mean that God can do anything that can be done. Very often people express this by saying that “God can do the impossible.” What we mean by that statement, though, is that God can do those things that are impossible for anyone else but God. For example, it is impossible for a human to spontaneously sprout wings and fly, but it is not impossible for God to make a human sprout wings and fly.

The problem of the rock is a different sort of impossibility though. For example, you could just as easily ask whether God could make a three-sided rectangle, understanding that the definition of a rectangle is a four-sided object. So, the question is basically: can God make a three-sided four-sided object? The answer is once again, no, but it is helpful because the reason for the “no” is clearer than in the example of a rock. The English language allows us to pose questions that are actually complete nonsense: there can be, by definition, no three-sided rectangles, no objects that simultaneously exist and do not exist, and no possibility of both an immovable object and an unstoppable force co-existing. In the same way, there cannot possibly exist both a rock too large to be lifted by anything and a God who is all-powerful.

You might still object that God seems to have limitations, and you would be right, except that you must note that God is only limited by Himself. For example, God is eternal, which means that God has existed forever and will always exist. This puts a certain type of “limitation” on God, because God must be who He is. So, God cannot stop existing, because He is eternal and if He stopped existing He wouldn’t be the eternal God. God also cannot make a creature that existed before God, because God has, by definition, always existed and so nothing could have existed before Him. Likewise, God is perfectly holy and righteous, so it is impossible for God to do something evil, because a perfectly holy and righteous being cannot do evil.

Although this can all be pretty confusing, the key thing to remember is that our language allows us to say some things that actually make no sense, and that it does not rob God of any glory to recognize that He cannot do meaningless or logically contradictory things.

Dream Church

August 4, 2008 in Christianity, Church, Leaky Jar

>Have you ever decided to make a list of all the qualities you wish for in your dream guy or girl? Maybe you want to find someone who is intelligent, good-looking, enjoys playing badminton, and can never say no to a midnight run for Fourthmeal. You might have compiled a list so specific and outrageous that strict adherence to it will keep you from dating at all, or a more generic list touching on only the most important factors. I know that I once thought up a list, decided that a list beyond the most basic points (e.g. dedicated Christian, intelligent, etc) was a bad idea, and then found someone who is far better than I had hoped for. I will refrain from going into much detail on that point so that I don’t make you jealous, but I would like to present you with a different list.

It is no secret that I hope to one day be a church-planting pastor, and believing that I am called to that while also believing that God can do astounding things through His Church constantly leads me to dream of those qualities that I hope to see in the church that God wants me to plant as well as in every church. Today, I offer you the first two qualities of my dream church with more to follow soon:

1. A Church of All Ages

The church is a place in which God brings about profound unity in the midst of diverse people, using every individual’s different gifts to benefit the whole. The Church is a body made up of many parts. One area in which American churches now struggle (although many excel on this point) is in bringing together people of all ages into a single church. Different styles of music and conducting a church service tend to appeal to different age groups, and with so many churches in any given town people are presented with the opportunity to choose a church that lines up with their preferences. Unfortunately, this can have the by-product of separating different broad age groups from one another. Christians of all ages need Christians of all other ages, and every age group can be of benefit to all other age groups. Children bring a refreshing innocence, vitality, simplicity, and perspective to those who are older. Babies bring a special kind of joy, along with the opportunity for the rest of the church to remember that we are called to care for those who cannot care for themselves. Teens can bring an energy, a passion, an excitement, and a holy discontent to the church that can help all the members to ask whether or not they are missing the mark as a church in any ways. Those who are older in the church bring experience, a lifetime of discipleship, and wisdom to the rest of the church. There are more age groups, of course, but the point is clear that all ages can benefit all others and are meant to be drawn together to fully represent Christ.

2. A Church of All Economic Backgrounds

It is a sad truth that as the number of churches increases in any given place, the tendency to separate by socio-economic background is more easily given into. Groups with varying amounts of wealth may not feel comfortable around each other and fear coming into too close of contact. The wealthy and middle class may fear that they will feel guilty for their possessions around their neighbors with fewer material possessions, while those who are poorer may fear that they will be judged as inadequate by their neighbors with multiple flat-screen TVs. It may be true that none of these groups feel particularly comfortable around their homeless neighbors. The truth of the matter is that these different groups probably are not physical neighbors at all, but also live in different parts of town. While this is a bleak perspective on the separation of classes, it is all too often accurate, but it cannot be justified for Christians. We, as Christians, are all brothers and sisters in Christ, all children of one Father, are all members of one body, all partakers of one baptism, all neighbors, and all followers of one Lord. We need to not only be acquainted with those of different economic backgrounds, but to really know them, to love them, to be concerned for them as people made in God’s image and brothers and sisters in Christ. Those with wealth are called to share their material blessings with their poor neighbors, and those who are poor are called to share their spiritual blessings with those who are rich. We must take care of one another, and to do that we must live in community with one another. The dream church needs the homeless, the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy.

Check back soon for more qualities of the dream church…

Street Preachers

July 10, 2008 in Christianity, Evangelism, Leaky Jar

>One evening a few years ago, my friend Michael and I were headed to downtown Modesto for some Starbucks, when we were confronted on a corner by three young men: two passing out small cards and one reading into a microphone on a portable PA system. If you have ever been in a similar situation, you have already guessed that the small cards were tracts and that the book being read was the Bible. The three young men were street preachers. As we walked by, they handed us their tracts, which on the front had a picture of the Starbucks logo (or at least very similar to it) and said something along the lines of “Good for One Free Coffee.” If you turned over the card, however, you would find it explaining that the tract was not actually good for a coffee, but something even better… eternal life!
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe that the salvation offered through our Lord Jesus Christ is infinitely more valuable than a cup of coffee, and you cannot convince me otherwise. Still, I was pretty disappointed to find that I was not going to be getting a free cup of coffee. If I, as a Christian, was upset by that tract, I cannot help but wonder what a nonChristian would think. I am guessing that they would not be impressed by the most eternally beneficial bait-and-switch of their life, but would instead be angry about not getting a free cup of steaming coffee. I could be wrong, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly effective way of reaching anyone with the Gospel.
More recently, my sister and her husband also headed downtown, dressed to the nines, for a fancy dinner to celebrate their anniversary. On their way, they were accosted by a street preacher yelling at them while condemning them for their sins. He warned Justin (my brother-in-law) that he was leading my sister to sin by taking her downtown for a night of drunkenness and dancing which would lead them straight to Hell. Justin responded, telling the man that they were in fact Christians on their way to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The street preacher simply repeated his accusations and generally expressed disbelief that Christians could be headed downtown for anything other than street preaching or losing their salvation. Ok, I paraphrased what he said, but that was the point of it. The anniversary couple walked away, not feeling particularly fond of this speaker, and wondering what kind of impact he was having on the nonChristians unfortunate enough to encounter him.
At this point, you might be getting the feeling that I only have a negative view of street preachers, and that must be cleared up right away. I generally have mixed feelings toward them. On the one hand, I respect them for their boldness in opening themselves up to ridicule for the sake of sharing the Gospel and I wish that I had such a burden for the souls of those who do not yet know Christ that I would join them on their soapboxes. On the other hand, I worry that some of them do more harm than good and poorly represent Christ with overly angry and hateful approaches to evangelism.
I recognize that God is not only merciful and loving but also just and righteous, which means that He is also a God of wrath. A Gospel made up only of God’s mercy is not a full Gospel, because a person must know of God’s justice and wrath in order to understand why they need God’s mercy. At the same time, however, a Gospel presentation that emphasizes only the coming doom of sinners is not the Gospel at all, for there is no good news included.
Open air evangelism has been used by the Church throughout its history and by no means should be allowed to disappear, but we must be careful in how we use it and ask ourselves if our approach represents Jesus well. I submit that lying about free coffee and condemning fellow Christians would not pass such an inquisition.
As for the rest of us, the Christians who do not participate in open air evangelism and street preaching, we can do better by learning to respect our brothers and sisters who do proclaim the Gospel in the streets and encouraging those who go about doing so in a Christlike manner. We can also learn to confront those who poorly represent Christ while maintaining a loving approach on our own part, remembering that we too are held to Jesus’ standards. With prayer, patience, truth, and love, we may just see street preaching become an effective witnessing tool once again.

– As a post-script, my sister and brother-in-law’s story brings out a funny lesson for all of us: never condemn anyone for sins that you don’t know they are committing, or for sins that aren’t actually sins. While they were condemned for drunkenness and dancing, they were guilty of neither. Furthermore, dancing is not a sin. The end.

The Trinity: A Primer

July 3, 2008 in Christianity, Doctrine, Leaky Jar, Theology

I have decided to try something a little different and post something that I have already written for use elsewhere. I am currently teaching a high school boys discipleship class in which we just learned about the Trinity. I used the following curriculum which I originally wrote for my Utah mission team and used last summer for a high school theology class. It is intended as a primer on the theology of the Trinity, and hopefully it will prove useful for other people as well.

The Trinity
Throughout the history of the Christian Church, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of its most distinctive and difficult characteristics. The Trinity is very hard to understand, but some sort of an understanding is not only important but needed for the Christian life. The struggle with the doctrine began in the early Church which saw itself as a branch of Judaism and monotheistic (believing in only one God; Greek mono = one + theo = God). At the same time, however, the Church worshipped not only God the Father but also Jesus Christ the Son as well as the Holy Spirit and their scripture also referred to all three with the characteristics of God. They apparently worshipped three persons but professed to worship only one God and so the doctrine of Trinity was, in a sense, discovered.
The doctrine of the Trinity would be refined over time by the Church, especially in the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian councils and creeds (statements of faith). The Church would find that the Trinity was best understood through a few statements of what it is, many statements of what it is not, and analogies that were able to help in some ways but were never perfect. Like the Church before us, we will look at the Trinity following this basic scheme.
Before moving on, though, it will be helpful to look at those sections of the Nicene Creed in particular that give insight into the Church’s understanding of the Trinity. They read:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father[1], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

What can we say about the Trinity?

The orthodox[2] Christian Church holds that the Trinity is one God in three persons. Each person of the Trinity is fully and completely God, is distinct from the other two, and is also completely and totally attached to the other two. Notice that we say the Trinity is “one God in three persons” and not “three persons in one God.” This may seem like a small point, but it helps us to remember a truth about the Trinity. We do not believe that if you add three persons of the Trinity together that you get one God, like God can be divided into three parts. God cannot be divided at all. Instead, we believe that the one God exists in three persons. By saying this, we remind ourselves that the Trinity is not a collection of three god-like persons who got together one day and decided to join forces. No, they have eternally existed together as one triune God.
Now on to the three members of the Trinity being distinct: each person of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is distinct from the other two. Thus, the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
With some basic groundwork laid, we can move on to looking at a few different questions that come up in dealing with the Trinity.

If the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (and maybe the Son), then is the Father older than the Son and the Holy Spirit, and is the Son older than the Holy Spirit?

The orthodox answer is simply no. No member of the Trinity is any older than the others. In order for one to be older than another, it would require that at one point a person of the Trinity did not yet exist. Every person of the Trinity has existed eternally; there was never a time when any one of the three did not exist. The Father did not make or create either the Son[3] or the Spirit. If He had, that would mean that the Son and the Spirit would not in fact be God but would instead be part of creation.
Early on in the Church’s history arose a heresy that dealt with this, which was called Arianism after its founder Arius. Arianism[4] believed that the Son was the very first, most important and most perfect creation of the Father. The Holy Spirit was, in turn, the first creation of the Son. Obviously, the problem with this heresy is that Son and Spirit are no longer God but instead part of creation which means that it is sinful and idolatrous to worship them. As we will see in a later section, it also robbed Jesus Christ of the ability to redeem humanity because only creator God and not creation is capable of redeeming a fallen creation.
The language the Church has used in describing the relationships among the members of the Trinity has been that the Father eternally begets the Son and generates the Holy Spirit, that the Son is eternally begotten[5] of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (and maybe the Son). The language of “begetting,” “generating,” and “proceeding” has been specifically chosen because it hints at the relationships without implying that one person comes before another in time. For example, there is a world of difference between “begetting” and “making.” Human persons beget human persons, dogs beget dogs, fish beget fish, etc. Humans make other objects, such as art, buildings, tools, weapons, medicine, food, etc. One might say that like begets like and like makes unlike (that is, things beget things like themselves but make things different than themselves). Thus, to say that the Son is begotten of the Father is to say that the Son is of the same nature of the Father, whereas the universe was made by the Father and so does not share His nature in fullness.
C.S. Lewis offers a helpful analogy by telling us to imagine three books stacked on a table. The first book can be defined as being under the other two, the second can be defined as between the other two, and the third can be defined as being on top of the other two. Now imagine there were no table and that the three books had been like that forever. We can understand their relationships to one another without thinking of one existing before another.
Because all three members of the Trinity have existed eternally, it is not correct to speak of one member, say the Father, producing another, say the Son, through some sort of actual intercourse. Thus, while we speak of the Son as the Son, we do not mean that He is a literal child of God the Father. Furthermore, because the three members of the Trinity have eternally existed as God, we know that creatures do not become gods and that God has never existed as anything but God.

Are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit just names we give to the one God when He does different things and fills certain roles?

Once again, the orthodox answer is no. The idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different names for the one God in the different roles He fulfills was rejected early on by the Church as the heresy of Modalism. Modalism basically states that the one God changes from mode to mode depending on what role He is playing at the moment. Thus we might refer to creator God and the God who takes care of the details of life as Father; the mode in which God redeems and saves us as God the Son; and the mode in which God lives in us, transforms us and inspires us as the Holy Spirit.
There are three major problems with Modalism. The first is that the Church and the Bible both portray the three members of the Trinity as distinct, without a hint of their being the same person. The second is that no role is assigned to just one member of the Trinity; all three members were involved in the creation of the world, in the redemption of humanity and within the transformation of believers. It would thus be meaningless to refer to the persons in different roles if they in fact are all involved in all roles. The third is that if the three members of the Trinity are simply names for different modes of God, there might be many more modes of God and therefore it is wrong to speak of a Trinity when there might be four, eleven or an infinite number of modes of God.
At this point some might be confused by referring to three distinct persons of the Trinity. When we think of person we usually think of human beings, but obviously that is not proper when referring to the members of the Trinity. Instead, person in this sense stems back to its Latin root, the word personae. This was a legal term in Rome which referred to a possessor of property. In the case of the Trinity, each person of the Trinity possesses the property of deity (god-ness), the nature or substance of God. A problem that came from this term in the early Church helps to highlight the rejection of Modalism by the Church. When (poorly) translated into the Greek of the Eastern Church, personae became prosopon which implied a mask that an actor would wear in Greek plays. The Eastern Church recognized that this translation hinted at a form of Modalism and rejected it. They instead used the term hypostasis which better represented personae and referred to the nature of God as ousia, so that in the Greek the Trinity was defined as one ousia in three hypostases. Remember that hypostasis refers to personhood; it will come up again later.

Are the members of the Trinity in a sort of hierarchy, with one having a higher rank than another?

You guessed it, the answer is no. Although the Bible sometimes sounds as if the Father has a higher position and rank than the Son and Spirit, such as when it says that they do the will of the Father, no member of the Trinity has more power or a higher rank than the others. To believe that one member has a higher rank than the others is to buy into another[6] early heresy known as Monarchianism. Monarchianism basically holds that there is a hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity and generally places God the Father as the most important member. The name Monarchianism comes from the same root as monarch and monarchy and holds a similar concept of kingship.
One of the major problems with Monarchianism is that it tends to divide the members of the Trinity too much from one another. It is, of course, true that the Son and the Holy Spirit do the will of the Father but we should not understand that to mean that they submit their own wills to the will of the Father because He is more powerful. Instead, they do the will of the Father as they will the same things that the Father wills. All three are perfect and so they each have a perfect will and so will the same things. Beyond that, if we look at the Son as submitting to the Father because the Father is more powerful than we are viewing the Trinity through a worldly lens. In the fallen, sinful world power is used to dominate and must be submitted to. In the Trinity, as seen through the Christian faith, true power is exerted through submission and love. If in any way a person of the Trinity does submit to another, it is not a sign of weakness but of strength.
The Bible can be easily read in such a way that we see a sort of hierarchy among the members, and that may in fact be true. If it is, however, we must remember that it is because the persons of the Trinity lovingly submit to one another and not because any one member is more powerful or more worthy of authority. The persons of the Trinity are equal in their nature and god-ness.

Looking at a few models of the Trinity.

Because the concept of the Trinity is so hard to understand, many Christians have tried to make it more understandable by developing models or analogies for the Trinity. No model is perfect but most are helpful in one way or another so we will look at a few important models and dig in to what they have to offer us.

1. We can understand the Trinity as Lover, Beloved and the Love that exists between them. The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved of the Father and the Holy Spirit is the Love that exists between them. Without any one part, the whole no longer exists. If there is no Lover, there is no source of the Love and the Beloved is no longer Beloved. If there is no Beloved, there is nothing to make the Lover a Lover and there is no Love. If Love does not exist, it is meaningless to speak of a Lover or a Beloved.

This model was developed by St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians the Christian Church has ever known. It does a good job of capturing the importance of all the members for the existence of the whole and emphasizing the distinctiveness of each member (not to mention that it draws from the Song of Solomon). The model does suffer in a few important respects, though. It is not great for representing the essential unity of the Trinity. Although removing one member from the equation would dissolve the whole, the other members might still exist in some other way. If we removed Love, the Lover and the Beloved would still exist but they would be known by different names. This is unlike the Trinity in which the existence of each member is totally necessary. The second major flaw is that it downplays the personality of the Holy Spirit. When we think of Love, we tend to think of an emotion or possibly a force. We do not, however, think of an actual person with consciousness and a will and this analogy risks dropping the Holy Spirit to a mere force.

2. The Trinity is similar to water. Water is one essential substance but can exist in three different forms: liquid, solid or gas.

Most modern American Christians have probably heard this analogy before and it does in fact help to grasp the unity of three distinct things. It drives home the reality of God’s one essential nature. It really is not a great analogy, though, because it borders on Modalism as water simply changes from form to form but is in reality the same. It can lead to the misconception that the persons of the Trinity are just different forms of the one real unity.

3. The Trinity is like a family, with the Father as the parents, the Son as the children and the Holy Spirit as the love that binds the family together.

This model is basically an alteration of St. Augustine’s, but is not quite as useful. It has the strength of emphasizing the interpersonal relationships of a family within the Trinity, but fails in other areas. For instance, a family unit can greatly lack in unity and so the unity of the Trinity can be lost in this example. Beyond that, it does not seem that all of the members are necessary in order to make the whole, especially in a modern American context. Once parents have passed away, aren’t the children still a family? Is a married couple not yet a family if it has not yet produced children? Does a family need to be filled with love in order to be a family? There are really too many ideas of what constitutes a family for this model to be of much use.

4. The Trinity is like an electrical circuit, with the Father as the battery, the Son as the wire, and the Holy Spirit as the electrical current. If any one of these three is removed, an electrical circuit no longer exists.

The strength of this model is that it highlights the necessity of each part in order for the whole to exist. It also gives an example of relationships between the members of the Trinity and their intertwined nature. It fails to reveal a personal nature of any member, however, and although the removal of any one part means that the whole no longer exists the other parts do continue to exist.

In thinking about the Trinity, it is often best to hold many good analogies in mind at once, recognizing the weakness of each but counterbalancing their strengths. One model might put too much emphasis on unity at the cost of distinction whereas another might represent diversity well but fail in regard to unity. By holding these different models, as well as the basic orthodox rules for understanding the Trinity, together, we can maintain a tension that is faithful to the orthodox Christian faith.
As a final note on the Trinity, it might seem that the doctrine of the Trinity is too messy to be true and that it would be much tidier to have just one completely unified god or to have three separate gods. While these views would be tidier and easier to grasp, it is for that very reason that they seem inadequate. One uniform god makes sense, as do three separate gods, and so they seem to be the very sort of things that would be invented by humans who want to explain everything in a neat and tidy fashion. Why would early Christians have invented the doctrine of the Trinity, when it must have been just as hard to understand for them as it is for us? The answer would seem to be that they did not invent the doctrine, but held faithfully to it because it was the truth revealed by God.
We now know that light behaves in an extraordinarily odd way, with some characteristics of a wave and others of a particle, two things that we thought were totally separate. We only believe that light behaves this way because it has been observed to be true. It is too wild of a claim to invent. Similarly the triune God, whom we profess to be infinitely beyond our ability to grasp, has revealed Himself to be more complex than we would have guessed and that is simply a mystery of the Christian faith.

[1] In the Western Church this line reads “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” whereas the Eastern Church has only from the Father.
[2] When using the term orthodox in this work, we will intend it to mean the correct belief held by all Christians. If at some point we want to refer to specific orthodox Churches they will be named, such as “Greek Orthodox,” “Eastern Orthodox,” or “Coptic Orthodox.”
[3] Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-3, Isaiah 9:6, Hebrews 13:8.
[4] Interestingly, there are some major doctrinal similarities between the Arian heresy and today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[5] John 3:16.
[6] Notice that almost every form of heresy occurred within the first four centuries of the Church’s existence. Satan is not creative with his lies and simply recycles and repackages them again and again.

Alcohol

June 11, 2008 in Christianity, Leaky Jar

When people find out that I don’t drink they tend to fall into two camps, those who worry for a moment until they realize that I am not yet of legal drinking age and relax upon assuming that I will be drinking soon enough, and those who congratulate me for not giving in to the evils of alcohol. If I explain my position on alcohol any further, though, both camps tend to look at me with a wary eye.

The first camp becomes distressed because they discover that I do not just abstain from alcohol temporarily because I cannot yet imbibe it legally (although that would be enough to prevent me from doing so), but permanently as I have committed to not drinking alcohol (with two reservations, which I will address further down).

The second camp is unhappy because they soon learn that I am not abstaining from alcohol because I think it is inherently sinful and forbidden by God.

At that point, I usually hope that a complete explanation of my position will ease the tension with both camps.

Let me explain. I believe that drinking alcohol before you are legally permitted to do so is sinful because we are to obey the laws of our government unless they contradict the laws of God. Upon reaching the legal age, however, I do not think that consuming alcohol is inherently sinful. I realize this will ruffle some feathers among those who believe that such consumption is explicitly forbidden in Scripture, but I am thoroughly convinced through my study of the Bible that it is not: for example, wine was an acceptable offering to God in the Old Testament; abundant wine production was a blessing promised by God to His people; Jesus’ first miracle was that of turning water into wine; Jesus used wine to implement the practice of sharing the communion meal; and Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine to help with his health problems. Saying that drinking alcohol is not inherently sinful does not mean that it is never sinful, however. The Bible soundly condemns drunkenness again and again. Drunkenness can lead to violence, sexual impurity, poverty, as well as woe, sorrow, strife, complaints, needless bruises, and bloodshot eyes. Paul directed Timothy not to appoint overseers or deacons who are given to drunkenness. Similarly, a person with a family or personal history of alcoholism is at least unwise to drink alcohol.

So why have I committed to abstaining from alcohol if I do not believe it is inherently sinful? I abstain for the sake of those who do drink and those who think it is sinful. The American culture is generally not one of moderation with regard to alcohol but instead one of abstinence or abuse. I hope to see a liberating moderation become the norm, however, and want to be an agent in bringing about that change. If I were to drink moderately and argue that moderate drinking was not sinful, I would be disregarded by those who believe all drinking to be sinful because I would be benefiting from my belief. My hope is that I can maintain a certain level respect from both camps through my stance and be used to bring about reconciliation.

I mentioned above that I have two reservations with my commitment to abstain from alcohol, and those deserve mention. The first is that I will drink wine when it is served as part of the Lord’s Supper, because I could never in good conscience refuse that which was instituted by my God. The second is only a potential reservation that requires more consideration, but is loosely that I may take alcohol if I am ever abroad and could not help but offend my hosts if I were to refuse it.

After laying out my stance, I realize that this may not prove a terribly helpful post for others. What would I exhort my brothers and sisters in Christ to do with regard to alcohol, no matter which camp they are in? I would have them study this passage, and have those who enjoy alcohol in moderation do so in a way that does not put a stumbling block before those who cannot, and those who cannot believe that they can drink righteously refrain from condemning those who do in word or thought. Argue with one another about this in love, each seeking to come to know what Scripture teaches and to teach the other, but do not allow alcohol to drive a wedge through the Body of Christ.

Surrender

May 24, 2008 in Christianity, Leaky Jar

“That’s it, I finally get it, I surrender.”
It seems that for several years God has been moving me to this point in my life, a point in which I can recognize a truth that He has been wanting me to grasp for so long. The lesson really began early in my high school years (in my memory, it likely stretches further back in time) when I ordered my second book from K.P. Yohannan, the founder of Gospel for Asia. I had already read his first book, Revolution in World Missions, which I found offered for free online. This book had introduced me to the awesome power of native missionary movements and I wanted desperately to read something, anything else written by this godly leader. This led me to Road to Reality, which was life-changing for me in ways that I had not foreseen. The book made a compelling case, without inducing feelings of guilt or despair, that Western Christians have far more wealth than we need so that we might give it to our brothers and sisters in need around the world. Yohannan has a gift for bringing conviction of sin without condemnation; diagnosing spiritual disease without coming across as hypocritical; and warning of churches veering away from the heart of the Gospel without a hint of judgmentalism. As his focus narrowed from megachurches spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Christmas decorations instead of helping the hungry to individual Christians spending needlessly on hundreds of little things, I became increasingly convicted. Yohannan’s point was not so much that we should feel guilty over every purchase, but instead that we have been given the great gift of wealth so that we might share it with those in need.
Moving forward a couple of years, I enrolled at Azusa Pacific Univerity (APU). Any APU student would laugh in agreement when I say that social justice is a big deal on campus. I had, of course, always learned from my parents, my church, and the Bible itself that as a Christian I have the responsibility of helping the poor and feeding the hungry. Still, I had not expected such a constant cry for social justice within our three-times-a-week chapel services. Although it has not been the topic every day, it is fairly safe to assume that at least one chapel a week will address the needs of the billions of poor around the world, their hunger for just enough food to survive, their thirst for clean water, their need for some sort of sanitary shelter, their lack of access to even the most inexpensive and basic forms of health care, and their cry for a break from systems of injustice and oppression. My hat is off to my university for forcing several thousand wealthy (at very least by global standards) young Christian students to remember that genuine suffering exists in this world and that we are responsible to help alleviate it. With that said, however, such a constant harping unintentionally drives many of us into a mixture of despair and guilt.
Could I ever even fulfill my responsibility to the poor if I tried? It’s not my fault I was born into a wealthy nation. With so many problems in the world, could I even make a difference at all?
I do not blame this response on the chapel speakers, as they are simply seeking to do their part in mobilizing future Christian leaders for the sake of the suffering, but the response does occur. With this large of an emphasis on social justice from chapel, it was not surprising to find that it was similarly a common topic of discussion and conversation among my friends. My friend Adam, in particular, and I would debate from time to time concerning whether or not social justice was just as integral to Jesus’ work as evangelism. My role has always been that which argues that evangelism is the key component to the Gospel and that seeking to help those who suffer is extremely important but far inferior to the message of salvation. After all, if you have the choice between helping with someone’s eternal life or making their short earthly life better, don’t you have to choose their eternity?
This brings me to the present, having just finished Art Beals’s Beyond Hunger: A Biblical Mandate for Social Responsibility. This work chronicles the author’s development in which he went from at one point thinking that the term “justice” was inextricably tied to theological liberalism (which I can tell you as a conservative evangelical is generally seen as a warning sign, whether or not it deserves it) to seeing it as a necessary concern for any follower of Christ. Although the book does not offer much in the way of systems which, implemented, could help the world’s poor, it is better for it. What the book does do is convince the reader that any follower of Christ must be not only concerned but active in seeking to help the world’s poor, that despair is foolish and crippling to the Kingdom of God which must remain hopeful, and that individual believers coming together in dedication to serving Christ can and do bring the Kingdom of God to those who suffer.
This brings me to my surrender. I must finally accept the truth. The Gospel is not a choice of evangelism or mercy and justice. The good news of Jesus Christ, the work of the Kingdom of God is a work of both evangelism and mercy and justice. Being a redeemed person, a member of the Church, a saint entails introducing people to God Incarnate. We must introduce others to Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers them. We must exemplify Christ’s love as His Spirit indwells us, using us as His body in order to demonstrate love in the flesh. We are bearers of the good news, which touches all of life. To borrow a metaphor from Beals, we as Christians are concerned neither with ghosts nor corpses, neither souls alone nor bodies alone, but with human beings, just as Christ is concerned with the people made in His very image. It has been a long time coming, but yes, I surrender.