Thursday, June 30, 2011

Doctrine vs. Life

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Doctrine and Life:

Q:  Which is more important:  to try to live the way that the Bible says we should, or to understand theology and doctrine correctly?

The best one-word answer to this question, when asked by a Christian, is “Yes!”   A person’s good deeds, their ability to closely follow the Bible’s commands, or their attempts to live in a Biblical fashion can never, under any circumstances earn them God’s blessings.  However, for one who is already a Christian, correct doctrine and a God-pleasing life are both things that they should strive for. 

Far too frequently, it happens that these two aspects of the Christian faith are placed as opposed to one another, and individuals, and even whole denominations, who strive for one often make the mistake of neglecting the other.   While the Christian seeks to keep these two aspects in balance, it is important to remember that neither of them can be the cause of salvation.  It is only trust in Jesus as the only savior which can do that.  At the same time, unrepented errors in either doctrine or life have the potential to endanger faith and salvation.

Without correct doctrine, a person could easily be misled into trusting in the wrong thing for their eternal salvation.  Even small doctrinal errors have the potential to grow into faith-destroying, salvation-threatening false teachings.  In addition, if one does not have a proper understanding of the Bible, how would he even know what a God-pleasing life really looks like?

On the other hand, a person who has correct doctrine, but pays no attention to their way of life runs the risk of developing a sinful pride which leads them to believe that their doctrinal understanding makes them spiritually superior, or of developing sinful habits, which if continued without repentance, have the risk of separating them from Jesus and the blessings He gives. 

Since God is the one who designed and made humans and all creation, it only makes sense that following His commands can bring blessing, but while living according to a Biblical morality has the potential to have earthly benefits for any person, good deeds can never earn them anything from God.

This is the vast difference which exists between Christians and their Bible compared to every other religion of the world and their respective holy books.  Every other religion of the world has a code of behavior or a path to enlightenment proposed in their holy books, which, if followed, claims it will bring divine blessing or good fortune to its adherents.  Christianity, on the other hand, proposes that humans are incapable of satisfying God by their deeds, and therefore, God Himself took up the task of satisfying His commands by taking on Human flesh in the person of Jesus, then gives His blessings to humans by grace, that is, as a gift. 

The purpose of the Bible’s commands, in light of this, is to show humans how badly they have failed to live up to God’s moral demands and force them to look outside of themselves, to Jesus, to obtain the righteous status that God demands.

I’ve seen often two slogans on bumper stickers and t-shirts which reflect the failure of Christian preachers and Bible teachers to properly convey the Biblical truth regarding these two aspects of correct doctrine and a god-pleasing life.  Both of these are usually imposed above a picture of the Bible, and they say: “When all else fails, read the Instructions.” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” 

In Christian teaching, the Bible is far more than mere instructions.  From beginning to end, it is the true story of God’s actions throughout history to bring about the salvation of humanity.  This message emphasizing the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the Bible’s central message, and the commands and moral teachings contained within are never intended to dominate over that message, but instead to act in service to it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Law and Gospel

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Law and Gospel:

Q: I have heard preachers say that a person is saved by “grace alone,” as God’s gift, but when I read the Bible, I see so many laws and instructions that tell us what God expects. If God saves as a gift, why does the Bible spend so much time saying what we should do?

These two messages in the Bible can often be an obstacle for Christians when they are reading their Bibles or attempting to understand theology. On one hand, the Bible has very clear statements such as, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, not by works…” while there are others that say such things as “Do this and you shall live.”

This is because there are really two types of teachings in the Bible. The first is called the Law. The Law tells humans what God expects them to do. The clearest example of this kind of teaching in the Bible is the Ten Commandments. The trouble with this teaching, if we look at it in isolation, is that requires perfect obedience for anyone to be saved through it. If any person would present their good deeds to God as a reason to be rewarded, they must keep God’s Law flawlessly. Since no natural human has ever accomplished this, we would be led to believe that all people will be eternally condemned.

Thankfully, the Law is not the last word in the Bible. This is where the other teaching comes into play. This teaching is called the Gospel. This teaching states that, in spite of the fact that no human can satisfy God’s demands by their good behavior, God Himself took on a body, becoming a man Himself, and fulfilled it in place of humanity. After Jesus had done this, He was abandoned by God while He was being crucified, and in that event, He also suffered punishment in place of humanity.

The Law tells us what we must do. The Gospel tells us what God has done. Anyone who trusts that Jesus has fulfilled the Law in their place and suffered punishment in their place, receives the reward earned by Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death—namely eternal life.

The Law has absolutely no power to save anyone, because no person can keep its demands. Instead, the Law works in service to the Gospel. First, it shows every person who hears or reads it how badly they have failed to please God, and forces them to seek a solution outside of themselves. When a person has been forgiven for their sins by God, through trust in Jesus, they then desire to do God-pleasing things, and the Law shows them which things are God-pleasing.

These two teachings create a balance which Christians, even preachers, often have difficulty maintaining. When one strays to one side, it is often tempting to say that one must behave according to the Law in order to be saved. In that case, our behavior, not the work of Jesus would be the cause of salvation. When one strays to the other side, it might be said that because we are saved as God’s gift, our behavior is unimportant. In this case, the Law is completely irrelevant. When the tension between these two teachings is maintained appropriately, we say that Jesus saves without any human contribution, but that the Law of God still stands, first to reveal sin and force people to look to Jesus, then to guide and inform Christians, not as a cause of salvation, but as its result.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pastoral Qualifications and Assignment

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Pastoral Qualifications and Assignment:

Q: How does one become a pastor, and how do they become the pastor of a particular congregation? How is it decided if/when pastors will move from one congregation to another?

The assignment of pastors to particular congregations is a subject for which there are no commands in the Bible. As a result, there are a wide variety of processes and arrangements by which this occurs.

The apostle Paul does give several qualifications which pastors must meet, which are found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These include that married pastors have only one wife; that they be capable of teaching; exhibit self-control; avoid drunkenness, violence, and greed; that they manage their family well; that they would not have become a Christian only recently; and that they have a good reputation.

Various Christian traditions develop and verify these qualities in different ways. The traditional route in modern Christianity has been that a pastor attend a seminary in order to receive Masters level theological education and spend time under the supervision of the faculty to verify pastoral character. This typically meant 7 years of classroom education along with at least 1 year dedicated to supervised experience in the field.

In more recent times, some denominations have required only attainment of a Bachelors degree, or attendance at a specialized Bible College in order to enter ministry. In a small number of denominations and in some non-denominational congregations, pastors may be accepted with no formal theological education, in which case their qualifications and character would be judged only by the leadership of the local congregation.

In the Bible and the history of the early church, we see many models by which pastors come to lead particular congregations. At times, a man seems to have risen up from within the congregation to become its pastor. On other occasions, Paul has assigned one of his students to pastor a congregation under his care, and at other times, it appears one of the Apostles may have come to lead a congregation, either because they were called upon to do so, or because they happened upon the congregation and saw their need.

So today, the means of assignment to a particular congregation also varies widely among the various branches of Christianity. In my experience, which included the traditional 8 year educational route, the leadership of my denomination compared my strengths and qualifications with the needs of several congregations seeking pastors and assigned me to my current congregation.

In many denominations, assignment by denominational officials continues to be the norm throughout a pastor’s ministerial career. In others, such as mine, the process is different for later ministerial calls than it is for the initial assignment. In the case of my denomination’s churches, congregations take the initiative in calling pastors. Pastors then prayerfully consider the needs of their current and prospective congregations, and accept or decline the request to become their pastor.

In other traditions, the process resembles that of the corporate world. Congregations make known their need for a pastor, and candidates submit applications, interviews are conducted, and a pastor is chosen.

In a small number of denominations, as well as some non-denominational congregations, pastors are not sought from outside of the congregation. Instead, they identify a candidate for ministry from among their own members, and either send him off for training, or even immediately raise him up to be their pastor.

Regardless of the model by which one becomes a pastor or a pastor arrives at a particular congregation, what matters is that congregations seek pastors who meet the Biblical qualifications, and that pastors are faithful to carry out the God-given work assigned to their office—namely to preach Jesus and bring His forgiveness to the people of the congregation through the means He has specified.