Upcoming Podcast!

I am in the process of starting a podcast regarding the same categories and issues discussed on this blog. I have not yet decided the frequency of postings, but ideally I would like to do one every day. The podcast episodes will be hosted by WordPress, and possibly one other mainstream host site. I am pitching to my board of elders at church for placing a link on the church website and Facebook page. Please watch for additional announcements.

I am very excited about expanding my ministry to include podcasts.

History of the Christian Church: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Christian Ethics and the “Good Life.”

I am now only 9 credits from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies. I have enjoyed sharing with you what I have learned. I started Christian Ethics last week. The following is from my first discussion assignment. In the first class (Classical Methodologies of Ethics) is about Consequences.

Consequences. Every choice we make results in certain consequences, whether good or bad. As a Christian, I am concerned with the results of sin in God’s creation. Hosea said, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain salvation upon you. You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-ar’bel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children” (10:12-14, NRSV).

Four decades of active addiction led to unfortunate results, yet I continued to seek my own pleasure. Ultimately, I chose to get clean, putting God and others before my own needs. This was a hard undertaking, mainly because I was self-centered to the extreme. Today, I say yes to God rather than “secretly” pursuing my agenda. Each time we say yes to Him, He is pleased. The more we step into God’s will for us and say no to sin, the easier it gets. The sinful life is very tempting. Choosing good over evil improves our spiritual formation and serves as an example to others.

Critical thinking (as a Christian disciple) allows for self-evaluation, and typically leads to self-correcting decisions. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” To grasp this tenet is to allow for integrity, humility, sound reason, fairmindedness, and courage (1). These signposts can help us attain “the good life.” Aristotle believed whenever we act we are aiming at some good. I would suggest that this sounds like “the ends justifies the means.” Specifically, while building our lives and our futures, we may rationalize our behavior as a “means” to achieving our goals.

As Christians, we learn about “goodness” from attending church, reading Scripture, and individual (not corporate) prayer. Given the many related terms (e.g., morals, values, principles), our ethics as Christians must be rooted in the good life of Jesus Christ. After all, much of our “source material” relative to ethics involve understanding God’s attributes and choosing to let His character guide our daily living.

I agree with Robin Lovin that some autonomy must be protected. Without free will to evaluate the ethics of a behavior or event, we become mere “automatons” of God. The important subject of this session is to determine what makes something right. As Western thought slowly disintegrated over the last century, the consequence has been moral relativism. Absolute truth has all but been rejected. The ontological sense of truth and morality is systematically ignored for the mantra What’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me.

Lovin provides four primary means for moral reflection: teleology (study of the “ends” or results); deontology (a top/down theory that actions are good or bad as determined by a clear and uniform set of rules); virtue theory (the focus is on determining and living life out of moral character); and contextualism (the belief that ethics reacts to an evolving world). Contextualism allows for the individual’s “context,” which is quite similar to moral relativism. A good life is not synonymous with “the good life.” Living a good life involves an ethically-informed life that seeks justice, virtue, and flourishing within the kingdom of God.

Footnotes

(1) Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 15.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Apologetics Interview

After some delay, I am able to share my final paper in “Apologetics” as part of my master’s in theological studies at Colorado Christian University. Instructions were to interview someone who was an atheist or skeptic regarding Christianity. I hope you will find this paper beneficial. I really enjoyed doing this assignment.

Introduction

The primary reason for Christians to engage in apologetics is to better prepare them for giving a defense for their faith, and to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15, NRSV). Koukl, author of Tactics, believes proper defense of the gospel begins with a game plan. Apologetics consists of three primary elements: defending the truth; defeating false ideas; and destroying speculation raised against God. And yet, this is not done through a frontal attack. Rather, the prudent plan is to proceed as God’s ambassador.[1]

Groothuis believes Christian apologists should offer answers for skeptics and non-believers based on rational arguments. The apologist’s method of arguing for Christianity will unavoidably be rooted—at least to some degree—in his or her personality and style of argument. Groothuis advised that apologists are often met with belligerent response. Such vehemence stems from atheists’ and skeptics’ belief that Christianity is indefensible. In addition, non-believers build their objections on a mantra that simply says, “…religion rests on blind faith and not reason for so long that many even within the church have actually come to believe it.”[2]

R. C. Sproul states that believers are to answer all inquiries—even the abusive ones—with gentleness and meakness. Indeed, this describes the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable that many Christians today believe they should not participate in trying to “prove” the veracity of the gospel. Sadly, they base this assumption on their conclusion that faith and proof are incompatible. Additionally, as Sproul notes, an apologist may present a response to a non-believer that proves the argument for Christianity, but “[I]n their bias they refuse to be persuaded.”[3]

The Interview

This writer was able to secure an interview with Dale, a skeptic at best. When he agreed, he remarked, “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but sure, why not?” At times he shared rather determined and caustic comments about God and Christianity.

Regarding belief about God or an ultimate reality, Dale said,

God is a crutch. He doesn’t exist. I can’t see him and he hasn’t answered my prayers. I cried out to him hundreds of times while I bounced from house to house in the system.[4] He didn’t answer my prayers to stop my mom from abusing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose. What kind of God is that?

Dale was asked how he views humanity in general. He did not mince words: “People suck! I hate people. I’d rather live deep in the woods somewhere.” Dale added, “I can’t relate to the “essence” of people you asked me about.” This writer explained, stating, “Essence is basically the core nature of a person.” Dale does not believe humans are made in God’s image. He believes the basic problem concerning mankind is rampant evil. He noted recent violence in America over racism, and said, “There have been lots of wars, and people taking what others have… there is way too much selfishness and me first.”

When asked about Jesus Christ, Dale responded,

You believe in Jesus, so that’s your higher power, like it says in the 12 Steps. My higher power is not a specific god. I get my power from the universe. I don’t believe God is looking down on me and judging me. If he is, well then it sucks to be me, I guess. I see no evidence of God or Jesus. In fact, the opposite. Guys in jail, or people struggling with addiction, buy into Christianity and go to Bible study in the prison to look good. They “find Jesus” while in jail.” Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.

Given Dale’s harsh remark about hypocrisy in the Christian church, it was important to address duplicity. Decidedly, hypocrisy is partially responsible for keeping people from attending church services. This writer shared with Dale his struggle with hypocrisy over the years. One’s personal life and character have a direct effect on efforts to share the gospel. He addressed Dale’s concern about evil in the world, quoting Grudem: “We must never blame God for the evil men do. Secondary causes, such as the actions of human beings, bring evil upon others.”[5] He told Dale it is impossible for mankind to have free will to literally choose anything at any given moment and not expect wrong or evil choices to be made.

Dale’s hope for eternity, salvation, or redemption is vapid. He said there is nothing for him to “hope about.” He denied the existence of heaven and hell. When pressed, he said his spirit will leave his body when he dies and become (or return to) the ultimate spirit in the universe. He stated, “To me, that’s god or a higher power.” He believes in an unnamed higher power, as demonstrated by the beauty and magnitude of the universe.

Dale’s concluding remarks:

I don’t think our morals came from “up there somewhere.” Maybe Heaven and Hell are right here. I always thought American Indians had a clear idea of the grand spirit. Other religions too. If God exists, then he must be in everything. But thinking about evil, how can we work that in with God? I told you flat out when we started, belief in God is a crutch. And God has an evil side. It bugs the crap out of me that he punishes everyone for the sake of a few. You can’t tell me all those who drowned in the flood were bad people. So why be God if you’re doing evil. A loving God? Come on man.

In closing, this writer said,

I lived a life of complete disobedience. My own motives and desires fueled me. I had to come first, even at the other person’s expense. I got into booze and drugs, ending up in prison. I kept struggling for four decades with no concept of compassion or trustworthiness. Yet, inside I believed in ultimate truth and salvation. I decided to hit my knees and ask Jesus to renew my relationship with him and to forgive my rebellion.

Dale’s final rebuttal:

When I think about religion, I think of 9/11 right away. Religious fanatics. So, I’m on the fence. One thing the Bible got right about man is his deceitfulness.

Analysis

As is often seen in 12-step programs, Dale has a rather vague idea of spirituality. He reiterated his belief in an ultimate power somewhere in the universe but cannot provide a concrete description or identity of that power. He believes this power has “always been.” He said mankind would “…not need Jesus to die for sin if God just outlawed evil. I can’t believe in a benevolent God in the face of terrorism, murder, cancer, wars, rape. Why can’t God stop evil?”

A key criterion underlining this writer’s approach to evangelism and apologetics can be summed up by Colson and Pearcey: “As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.”[6] There is a bit of Christianity’s social mandate.

Chandler believes the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was “…to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the earth.”[7] He believes salvation includes a real world reconciliation. He says, “For the reconciliation enacted by the cross to be cosmic, then, it must encompass more than just our individual relationship with God.”[8] In other words, Christians are reconciled “to reconcile.”

Christians are not simply “the recruited,” nor are they to merely be recruiting others. Certainly, the entirety of creation is out of sorts with the effects of sin. God expects Christians to participate individually and corporately in reversing the curse by setting things right. Christians are the eyes, ears, feet, and hands of the Body of Christ, and are commissioned to help bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Conclusion

Apologetics and personal evangelism are certainly intertwined, with personal testimony about faith in Jesus Christ being narrower than the broader discipline of apologetics. Regardless, it is not possible to genuinely engage in evangelism or apologetics while harboring an anti-Christian or hypocritical worldview. It is critical to ask one’s self, “How would I behave in the world if my outward actions matched what I claim to believe in my heart?” This question was a substantial factor in this writer’s change of orientation toward God and others. Once this has been established, the real work of evangelism and apologetics can begin. 

Footnotes

[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 19-20.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 8.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Dale was a ward of local child services for 7 years.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

[6] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), xii.

[7] Matthew Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.

[8] Ibid., 143.

Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020)

We have a right to believe whatever we want, but not everything we believe is right” (Ravi Zacharias).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Ravi_Zacharias_250_291

I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER THE first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak. Unfortunately, it was not “in person,” but that did not matter. His words were so captivating it was as if I were sitting in the front row. Learning of his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (“RZIM”), I hoped to one day interview for a position on staff. I was leaning toward a ministry of apologetics before I began listening to Ravi, but I was so impressed by the clarity and passion with which he “defended the faith” that I decided to move headlong into that mission.

I was first introduced to apologetics in an undergraduate class at Colorado Christian University (“CCU”) in 2018. It was called World Views. I have been studying philosophy, psychology, comparative religion, and Christian theology for a number of years, but CCU is preparing me for a purposeful examination of these fascinating and vital disciplines. I learned that “worldview” means the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions (1). James Sire issued a caveat: “A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (2).

I am totally convinced the Christian faith is the most coherent worldview around. Everyone, pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong? What happens to me when I die?—Ravi Zacharias.

Ravi suggested one role of apologetics is “seeing things God’s way.” The apologist must take what he or she has learned about the Christian faith (through a God’s eye view), then present it in a manner conducive to the intended audience. Paul said, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV). If there is an intellectual (theoretical) barrier, start there. If there is a sensory (aesthetic) barrier, start there.

When sharing the gospel, I find it useful to start where there is common ground: In the beginning. It is better to open your Bible to Genesis 1 than John 3:16. One’s understanding of God must be rooted in origin, sovereignty, immanence, and aseity (“from self”) before the concept of “God in the flesh” and the crucifixion of Christ can be grasped.

A Christian Worldview

Amy Orr-Ewing said, “By its very nature the the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook.” (3). Postmodernists reject any clear meaning of truth, citing discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. This pervasive worldview makes it hard to engage in evangelism and apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture. However, it is not necessary to understand and evaluate other worldviews in order to have a personal faith in the gospel.

According to data published by George Barna in 2002 “…just 9% of all born again adults and just 7% of Protestants possess a biblical worldview” (4). This study notes that only half of Protestant Pastors in America possess a biblical worldview. Ronald Nash defines biblical worldview as believing “…human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (5).

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man… If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”—C.S. Lewis

A biblical worldview rests solely on the revelation of God to His creation, which is activated by the Holy Spirit to those who adopt it. A theistic worldview and a biblical worldview are not synonymous. Here’s the difference: the biblical view begins where the basic acceptance of God leaves off, compelling the Christian to seek God (“Yahweh”) through His written Word, and apply to everyday life what Scripture teaches.

Ravi’s Profession

Ravi Zacharias was indifferent to “all things religious” early in his life, and as a result had no “good options” for his misery and existential angst. He was born in southern India and raised in Delhi. He played a variety of sports growing up, including cricket and tennis. He focused too intently on sports and began failing his courses, leading to complete shame and despair. He attempted suicide by ingesting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, but was found by someone who immediately sought medical attention. Lying in his hospital bed, he saw how empty his life was at seventeen years of age; essentially, he was at a loss regarding the purpose and meaning of his life. Someone brought a Bible to him and he began reading. He came upon John 14:19: “Because I live you will live also.” At that moment Ravi’s life became defined, and Jesus Christ transformed his life.

“You see, there is an intellectual side to life but also a side to life where deep needs are experienced. We falsely think that one side deals with truth and the other with fantasy. Both need the truth, and the elimination of one by the other is not the world in which God intends for us to live.”—Ravi Zacharias

Ravi’s biblical worldview was simple and elegant. He began with “what is truth?” His evangelism and apologetics were rooted in “helping the thinker believe and the believer think.” We tend to doubt what we cannot see. Ravi said, “Truth is generally measured in three ways: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and and experiential relevance” (see above video). Also, “Truth that is not under-girded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possessor of it repulsive.” Jesus plainly stated who He was with these critical remarks: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Ravi spoke many times on the impact of secularism and relativism in Western civilization, stating that the world’s religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance. Pluralism by design features a competing number of worldviews to choose from with no one viewpoint being dominant, let alone “correct.” Moral relativism completely discounts universal and ontological points of reference for right and wrong. Instead, morality is seen as contingent upon any number of variables: cultural, historical, situational. Of paramount importance is that none of these worldviews is able to solve the sin problem. Ravi said, “The points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic. Indeed, they are foundational” (6).

“The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world.”—Charles Malik

With Gratitude

I close my eyes and remember. I can hear a voice from my early teens, someone I’d come to admire: confident and moving. This voice was particularly compelling one a Sunday morning in 1972 when I got up from my seat in the pew and answered the call to come down front and accept Jesus Christ as my Messiah, my Lord and Master. I was thirteen. I can also remember sitting in my room on occasion listening to Billy Graham. Reverend Graham’s voice was compelling, bold. It rose above everyone in that auditorium, above every earthly concern. He asked the audience, “What’s wrong with the world?” 

There is only one other man of God who has moved me like Billy Graham has: That man is Ravi Zacharias. Ravi opened the door to a deeper walk with Jesus. To a compassionate “living” theology. He took on the many isms of this world, graciously explaining where they miss the mark. He compared the “secular gods” (pluralism, naturalism, secularism, and moral relativism) to Christianity: the Way,  the Truth, and the Life. Ravi’s distinctive voice and emphatic apologetic pierced my heart. He confirmed God’s call on my life—evangelism and apologetics. 

I could not be more grateful to Ravi Zacharias and Billy Graham, mighty men of God, who came into my life. Each of these men impacted me at major crossroads. I must thank the living God for men such as these.

Suggested Additional Reading

The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version)
Beyond Opinion: Living the Truth We Believe, Ravi Zacharias
The End of Reason, Ravi Zacharias
Jesus Among Secular Gods, Ravi Zacharias
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman L. Geisler & Frank Turek
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey
There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew
The Universe Next Door, James Sire

Footnotes

(1) Phillips, Brown, and Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008), 8.
(2) James Sire, The World Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),20.
(3) Amy Orr-Ewing, “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible,” in  Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 3.
(4) George Barna, “Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have a Biblical Worldview,” (Jan. 12, 2004), Barna Research. https://www.barna.com/research/only-half-of-protestant-pastors-have-a-biblical-worldview/
(5) Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 47.
(6) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2017), 6.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and Spirituality

The following summary is from the first week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Assess the claim that art relates us to realities of a “spiritual” sort. Include in your answer particular reference to John Ruskin’s notion of Theoria (1903).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

ART SPEAKS TO ME on a level that reaches far deeper than tenets or doctrines. Although such underlying (especially “systematic”) precepts provide a degree of universality to religious practice, my valuation and interpretation of art (for art’s sake) must not be rooted in preconception, bias, “proper” or “theological” interpretation, or value—it’s not theological, but spiritual. Theoria is, after all, contemplative and rational by nature. Here is the fascinating part. In Neoplatonism, theoria (contemplation) is the creative power of the cosmos. This makes me think a painter could present the “unadulterated truth” of a subject, yet the beholder could see a completely different “truth.” Moreover, relative to whose “unadulterated truth?” Ask that question of the wrong person and you will get an earful about absolute truth being a myth. What, therefore, is causing the “creation?” The act of doing art, or the act of interpreting it? (Why does this question sound hauntingly like the proverbial “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

It seems Ruskin understands how psychology also plays a role in interpretation of art. Even experimental psychology looks for “visual truth.” That is not to say all art is a therapeutic Rorschach, but how one views an object of art says something about the beholder that can be distinct from the intention of the artist. Does not theoretic faculty involve analyzing the “value and meaning” of mental impressions? Further, Ruskin does not believe imagination can be taught or explained. And even if in arguendo such skills could be taught, I would think the paradigm of the teacher and/or the technique being used to teach could (to a certain degree) impact or “mentor” the student regarding what is imagination and how to practice it. Moreover, interpretation can be impacted by one’s community of believers through suggesting (from a group think or group feel perspective) what one sees or should see. I think this communal context often causes geniuses and the gifted to fear misunderstanding, ridicule, or rejection, which can ultimately stifle expression. This begs the question Can something created but never publicly shared be called art?

I feel more confident now than at the beginning of this exercise to state that art must have a spiritual component. Creativity is gifted to us by the Creator. We are commanded to be creative; to procreate, use, subdue, name, categorize, and build upon what is. In this manner, creation (or if you prefer, art) is not “just art.” It is not only mechanical action. To a degree, art is “functional.” It is the “creative” use of that which is in order to make something which is not. This is precisely how God “created” Creation. He had a concept, intention, or desire (indeed, the “will” to make something) and He “expressed it” by essentially painting with His words! To me, this same process (albeit to a much lesser or universally dramatic degree) is utilized by artists (i.e., other “creators”) to express their vision in a manner that is an honest and accurate expression of what they were thinking or feeling. Creating a painting on canvas does not have the same “function” as a 1957 Corvette Stingray, but both are (at least to some) works of art. Of course, I cannot drive the painting to work!

I look forward to your feedback.

“Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000), 18–19.

Responses from Classmates
From Meredith:

Hi Steven!

When reading through Ruskin, I found it very interesting how he related beauty to morality. You mention the idea of absolute truth, and I am curious if you think there is an absolute truth to what is beautiful–an absolute truth to what should inspire theoria? Ruskin also mentioned that humans can misuse pleasures and the senses, and that the Christian goal is not a hedonistic lifestyle. Do you think that art, when misused, can lead to lust, greed, or idolization that would not align with what Christianity teaches?

My response to Meredith:

The question of “absolute truth” is something I’ve been studying and writing about for over a year. I find it quite fun to compare and contrast the various isms (pluralism, moral relativism, secularism) with the Truth of the gospel. I wet my whistle (so to speak) in an undergraduate class at CCU regarding the history and philosophy of psychology. I’ll begin with deontological ethics. This school of thought is a principles-based system in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values. This differs from moral relativism in that the latter takes its cue (indeed, its definition) from culture or the situation. It is “relative” to the circumstances. Moral relativists believe morals are malleable. As a Christian, I believe moral truth is found in the Scriptures.

One of the greatest influences on my worldview (and my “apologetic” focus) is Ravi Zacharias. Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” It touts the “freedom” of not being held to “someone else’s moral compass.” Ravi says, “Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules” (1). He adds that Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It allows us to respond to any situation in a uniform manner, freeing us from trying to “figure out” right and wrong in an ad hoc manner regarding each given scenario. We live in a society that increasingly does not value truth on the biggest questions of life. I believe man’s fear stifles the truth about what we’re doing here, how we got here, how we should “behave,” and where we’re going when we die. Man bends the truth, stretches the truth, manipulates the truth to fit a particular worldview, culture, time period, or situation.

I do not believe there is a definition of “absolute beauty” as it applies to any give piece of art or to an observer’s response to that work of art. This is kind of tricky, because I do believe in an absolute underlying truth and morality that applies no matter the person or situation. This universal truth actually reveals the character and attributes of God. I see the ministry of Jesus as a pure revelation of truth and of the will of the Father. Given the fact that theoria essentially means “comprehension,” and can be impacted by linguistics and knowledge, it is not a foolproof means for determining the absolute meaning or “truth” behind a work of art. However, theoria is supposed to focus on direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Indeed, this can be implicated in interpreting art that has a philosophical or theological theme. What might muddy the waters a bit is that Neoplatonists not only see theoria as contemplation, they believe it is the creative power of the cosmos. This likely refers to Creation being spoken into existence. God created the universe and all its elements and creatures by “saying” what He wanted and it came to pass. His words were his “paint brush.”

Yes, I do believe art can be misused, but that seems to be limited to misuse of a work of art in a heretical or cult-like situation. It would be virtually impossible for the observer of a work of art to make an ontological determination of the intent or truthfulness of the artist by merely looking at the art. If the artwork seems wildly off base, however, then it seems a conversation with the artist would clarify his or her meaning. However, I don’t know where I stand regarding art as idolatry. I recommend looking at Professor Buchanan’s feedback to my initial discussion post. 

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(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York: Faith Words, 2019), 28.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Colonialism and Christianity

The following summary is from the last class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Early nineteenth century missionaries were important participants in colonial expeditions. Given that many in twenty-first century Western culture decry the era, goals, and abuses of colonialism, we must ask: Did Christianity benefit from an un-Christian impulse (colonialism)? Discuss this by answering the following questions. Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism? Does the fact that colonialism aided Christianity in its spread throughout the entire world bestow ultimate value on the colonial experiences, making colonialism worth it?

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Most people during the first century saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. When I consider the progressive thread of redemption throughout the entirety of Scripture, I am able to accept some of the negatives of Christianity developing alongside colonialism.

Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism?

Colonialism is the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. It is reasonable to expect abuses and negative consequences with such activity. Many Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions often taken in the name of conquest or expansion include domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to evangelism during global expansion, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity had on new populations during the era in question.

Most mission societies were not responsible for the troublesome side effects of colonization. However, as Gonzalez notes, the relationship between colonialism and missions is complex and difficult to gauge. Tradesmen, explorers, and colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries. This interrelationship was both positive and negative. I think it is no coincidence that not all churches or colonizers supported missions. Several key companies objected to spreading the Gospel in conjunction with colonialism and industrialization as they feared it would cause disagreements and protests that could hinder economic growth. The aim of colonization was to exploit the economy of each region, which usually led to making the new colony economically dependent on the colonizers; not to share the gospel or plant new churches.

From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission. Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. I agree that this helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries. This was possibly the spark that prompted a more ecumenical movement in Christianity. Missionaries stood up against the caste system in India. Protestantism helped liberate those people deemed “untouchable” and excluded from everyday society. Other missions helped rescue women from sexism and violence and spawned their education. Further, the rapid Westernization of Japan aided the work of Christian missionaries.

Although colonialism brought much abuse and controversy to new regions, does the spread of Christianity outweigh the negative?

Gonzalez tries to draw a line-in-the-sand between colonialism and missions. Missions over the centuries have reached regions not visited by white explorers, traders, or colonizers. Were these “missionary” activities better than those occurring in tandem with expansionism? Is “saving souls” worth it no matter what? Do the ends justify the means? Not an easy question to answer! Many individuals have been brought to Christ during colonization. Over the centuries, Christianity has been labeled elitist, manipulative, arrogant, destructive. Gonzalez describes the so-called “white man’s burden.” Simply stated, it means taking to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. I cannot help but think about watching TV documentaries on countries devastated by war and extremism (such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq), or underdeveloped nations showing conditions that no one should want to endure. It’s easy to ask (from my comfortable recliner in modern America) why anyone would enjoy living in such conditions? Actually, this underlying question (nay, concern) is one of the driving forces of many efforts over the centuries to industrialize or “modernize” underdeveloped nations.

Gonzalez said modernity has produced the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, suffering the destruction of cultural patterns that had sustained them for generations. Expansionism has been blamed for growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor throughout the world (1). Indigenous populations frequently suffered a loss of culture as colonizers tried to impose their way of life on their new “subjects.” White colonizers often considered these native peoples to be savage and lacking in culture. No doubt they felt justified in attempting to bring stability to what they might have considered “barbaric” or primitive populations. This is unfortunately as much a “value judgment” as it is a desire to aid in improving the living conditions.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in accordance with the command in Matthew 28:18-20. To achieve this, missionaries have translated and distributed the Bible in many languages. Countless indigenous peoples have learned to read through the work of missions. Treaties often included clauses that made allowances for the work of Christian missions. Following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, the presence of tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries throughout the provinces (many in positions of authority in the church) helped quash further rebellion. Corrupt governments and rampant exploitations met staunch Christian opposition.

I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Moreover, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater. At the least, many seeds of faith were planted. Of course, I believe most missionaries were primarily motivated by the Great Commission. Thankfully, all things tend to work for good for those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). To this end, I believe the pros of colonialism outweigh the cons relative to spreading the gospel.

Response from Classmates

Thanks for sharing a great post. I deduced that you feel that it was “worth it” in the end. Although I must admit that I wrestled A LOT with my answer this week, I ended up concluding that the abuses of colonialism were not “worth it,” as I don’t think that God would place inherent worth/value on sin and evil. However, I do agree that He can bring good out of all things.

You and I have both shared painful experiences from our own past throughout the coursework. As I was writing this prompt, I couldn’t help but think about how it could relate to my life, or anyone who has experienced some form of abuse. I honestly felt as though the pain that I endured was “worth it” because it led me to Christ, and my salvation is the greatest gift I could receive in this life. I also realized that Christ’s abuses were deemed “worth it” for our salvation—His sufferings in the world and horrible death on the cross gave us a shot at eternity. This is where I struggled!

However, there was a difference with colonization—the individuals who were abused during colonization were not Jesus, but rather His sheep. That is where I decided that the abuses of some to lead to the salvation of others was not “worth it.” God does not delight in sin, and calls us to spread the Gospel, not evil. One of our classmates mentioned that they don’t think that Christians should ally themselves with the “lesser evil,” but rather should uphold to what is true according to the Word. Do you think it could be dangerous to justify a lesser evil in the name of a greater good?

Meredith

My Response to Meredith

Thanks for your response to my initial discussion post. Let me begin by (re)stating the definition of colonialism: the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. I do so in order to draw a definite line in the sand between colonizers and missionaries. I would further state that those colonizers who were Christians and yet chose to cajole, cheat, manipulate, dominate, or otherwise force themselves and their beliefs on indigenous people merely to profit from associated gains are to blame, and not Christianity itself. Further to this point, I am quoting from Tiffany’s initial discussion post:

It is important to separate out Christianity from Christians, as well as those falsely speaking under the claim of Christianity, in support of this assertion. It is not that Christianity was tarnished, but that the reputation of Christianity blemished. Christianity suffers in the way Christ suffered—in that Christianity is birthed in, sustained by, and brought to culmination in Christ. He is the identity of Christianity (italics in the original).

I would argue that one of the positives of colonization was missionaries often accompanied the colonizers, making it possible for missions to have the means and companionship to travel where they might otherwise be unable to get to. Admittedly, there were more explorers and tradesmen who were motivated by expansion, wealth, and increased territory than there were Christians solely dedicated to sharing the gospel. I can tell you’re on the fence regarding the “worth it” question. You are closer to saying yes than you think. You referenced Romans 8:28: God will always use whatever circumstance or individual He requires to bring about His will.

Grudem (1994) provides insight regarding God’s will as it relates to (i) His absolute moral will, and (ii) His providential will. God’s moral will is revealed in Scripture. We know His character, His affection, His desire for us. We know how He wishes us to behave. He has provided certain “moral commands.” God also has providential (or “secret”) will (1). God is able to permit us to do something that might displease Him in the short run but which brings about His intended results in the long run. This is the very essence of Romans 8:28.

Speaking of our pasts, as I struggled a year and a half ago to stop abusing pain medication and to “forgive” myself of my past and see it as an asset for helping others (rather than a liability), I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who had spent 17 years in active addiction living on the streets. He became a born-again Christian and quit abusing crack. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention for sure. He continued: “He wants you to know that everything you’ve been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now meeting me was ordained by Him in order to assure you became the man He needs you to be to carry out your ministry.” Whoa!

The concept of God’s providential will also speaks to His eternal plan whereby He determined (before the foundation of the world) to bring about everything that happens, and to work it together for our and His good. Grudem believes this “decree” type of will is critical because it shows us God doesn’t “make things up as He goes.” Grudem says, “He knows the end from the beginning, and he will accomplish all his good purposes” (2).

You quoted a classmate who declared that Christians should not align themselves with the “lesser evil” just because of a potential good outcome. For me, “aligning” with any evil would suggest being complicit. This is a question of personal motive. We must always remember that God works through human actions (even the horrific ones) in His providential oversight of creation. The individual making the wrong decision for the wrong reason is liable for his or her behavior, but God has absolute providence over the situation. I believe we must always remember that nothing about God, His creation, or us (as His image-bearers) is determined by chance or randomness; nor are they determined by impersonal fate or karma (determinism). God is sovereign over all.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 418.

(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 332.

(3) Grudem, 333.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Most Important Event

The following summary is from my most recent class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

In the opening chapter of the reading for this section, Justo L. Gonzalez (2010) makes this statement: “…from the perspective of the history of Christianity, the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church in which peoples of all races and nations had a part” (302). After completing your reading, answer the following questions:

  • Was Gonzalez correct in his identification of “the most important event?”
  • If not, what would you say was the most important event for nineteenth century Christian history?
  • If so, what would you say was the state of that “universal church” by the end of the nineteenth century?

My Opening Argument

Gonzalez describes changes in the economic power of nation-states in Europe and throughout the Western hemisphere during the second half of the eighteenth century. In addition, there were great political and social upheavals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries “…that would have a serious impact on Christianity as a whole” (1). This period also featured tremedous geographical expansion of Christianity. I agree with Gonzalez that the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church—one available to all races and nations. His qualifying comment is  important: “On the other hand, however, it is necessary to point out that this took place within the context of colonialism and economic imperialism” (2). As colonialism, neocolonialism, and the Industrial Revolution took hold, personal and cultural diversity put doctrine and hierarchy at risk in the Christian church.

While Christianity must always involve a personal choice and commitment, simply doing missions will not assure universal adherence to accepted Christian doctrine. There are four marks of the Church, signifying it is (i) one; (ii) holy; (iii) “catholic” and (iv) apostolic. Each mark is critical for establishing and maintaining “consistent” Christianity. Without preservation of a single, holy, universal, and apostolic church, geographic expansion would surely have had a more devastating and lasting impact on the gospel than it did. As it is, there were periods of amazing proliferation of Christianity as a natural companion to colonialization, but there were also periods of painful, heretical, and villainous actions. Let’s look at the key “marks” of the church.

One means there is one body (the Christian church) with Christ as its head. Grudem says, “The church is the community of all true believers for all time” (3). Christ holds all authority over the church. Paul wrote, “[A]nd he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23, NRSV). Ephesians 2:19-20 says we’re fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus being the cornerstone. In this regard, the “church” is much more than the visible local church. As the Body of Christ, it must remain one regardless of dispensation or geographic disbursal. 

Holy means the church and its believers must be “set apart” and sanctified. Moreover, the church is holy because it is Jesus Christ, who teaches holiness. Grudem says, “The purity of the church is its degree of freedom from wrong doctrine and conduct, and its degree of conformity to God’s revealed will for the church” (4). The holy church must be separate from the world, but its unity requires freedom from divisions among the community of believers (the true Christians) as well. Its “holiness” is grounded in the need for proper doctrine, conscience, and considerations. This feature also helps identify “false” churches—which by definition are not a part of the Body of Christ. It’s through caution and humility that we preserve proper doctrine.

“Catholic” means it is universal. The Greek word for “catholic” (katholikos) means “throughout the whole” or “general.” The term “catholic” first showed up during the patristic era denoting universal. For example, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church (Ign. Smyrn. 8:2)” (5). Harrison says when the term began appearing in the Apostle’s Creed (and earlier in the Nicene Creed), “one holy catholic and apostolic church” expressed a sense of universality; accenting the church’s unity despite its geographic dispersion. The term “catholic” can also apply to the New Testament epistles, indicating they were intended for the entire church and not just those to whom they were addressed. This is a critical point, given the fact that the Scriptures are alive and timeless. Further, Harrison indicates that in the face of numerous heresies during the Apostolic Era, the term “catholic” was equivalent to orthodox. Of course, during the Reformation “catholic” was used to delineate between the emerging Protestant church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Apostolic means the church was founded by Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Jesus then delegated that authority to the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:19-20). Apostolic propriety has established key matters such as baptism, the Eucharist, authorship of the canonical Gospels, and acceptable key doctrines. The apostles founded churches and appointed their successors. This provided the means by which emphasis was on the context of the central gospel message. The apostolic feature of the church allowed for establishing its marks, purity, power, hierarchy of governance, grace, and unity.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that missions should not take precedence over the establishment of a universal church with a uniform set of core doctrines. Failure to grant preeminence to the marks of the church and its core doctrines would cause replication that would eventually lead to false churches.

Response from Austin, a Fellow Classmate

You mentioned that you “do not believe missions should take precedence over the establishment of a universal church with a uniform set of core doctrines.” Yes, I do agree we need core beliefs, but at the same time I feel there is urgency in sharing the Gospel with the unreached and that it should not be sacrificed. I could see a combination of missions and the formation of a universal church being the most important, but it’s hard to really specify which one has a great significance on Christianity. Do you think missions, or the formation of mission societies was a significant event during the nineteenth century, even if not the most significant?

My Rebuttal

Thanks for your feedback to my initial discussion post. We are closer in agreement than it might sound. The Great Commission is critical. It applies to the entire church. We are all responsible for bringing the gospel with us wherever we go; whatever our vocation. Rather than say a “universal” church is somehow more important than missions probably fails to accurately express what I meant. These two aspects of the church are “nearly” equal in importance. I give more importance to first establishing a church that displays all the marks: one, holy, universal (“catholic”) and apostolic. A sort-of prerequisite to missions. Like taking a course on “fundamental Christian principles” first, and then moving on to an advanced course on deeper issues of doctrine. I addressed this issue to an extent in Church History I (Session 5) when answering the prompt about benefits of the Reformation versus the evangelical benefits of colonial expansion: i.e., which of these two has contributed the most to the course of Christianity?

At that time, I said the Reformation yielded more positive results than colonization (“expansion” or “globalization”). I took that position for the same reason I bring to this week’s discussion. The church is commanded to go forth into every nation, spreading the Good News—teaching and baptizing, making disciples of men for further proliferation of the gospel. Colonialism  includes explorers, travelers, merchants, and missionaries (who bring their religion with them). But “good” Evangelism (one of Christianity’s most sacred and clearly established responsibilities) must be well-grounded in an accepted and uniform set of principles. Granted, Christianity has fractured into numerous denominations, which is why I believe it is paramount that the church had to first settle on a centralized or universal set of doctrines prior to setting out to share the gospel. 

Consider the deeper intellectual revolution Gonzalez (2010, 304) speaks about. The philosophy of thinking (epistemology) was drastically impacted by the Renaissance. One side-effect of the Industrial Revolution was a focus almost exclusively on empirical evidence as the best means for gaining knowledge. Nationalism took hold and led to changes in government models and the social order. In the face of all these changes, the church remained present, cutting across “national boundaries, class distinctions, and political allegiances” (6). Gonzalez said that for the first time in history a “truly universal church had been born” (7).

Gonzalez also noted, “[F]rom the perspective of the twenty-first century it would appear that the most important event in the history of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth century was that [Christianity] moved beyond its traditional [geographical?] confines within Western civilization and became a truly universal faith(8) (italics mine). Given the fact that secularism, pluralism, and moral relativism was impacting philosophy and theology, Christendom fell on leaner times, thereby setting up the post-Christian society we see today. It is critical that Christianity have a uniform set of core beliefs and a sense of universality before there can be any accurate and efficacious proliferation of the message. 

The universality of the Christian church is extremely important. Arguably, this has not created “flawless” adherence to uniform doctrine throughout the world, but “universal faith” has created a solid foundation from which to preach, teach, disciple, and baptize people that holds true to the nuts-and-bolts of Jesus’ instructions to the church just prior to His ascension.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 301-02.
(2) Gonzalez, 302.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
(4) Grudem, 873.
(5) E.F. Harrison, “Catholic,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed., edited by D.J. Treier and W.A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 163.
(6) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 312.
(7) Gonzalez, 314.
(8) Gonzalez, 316.

The Christian Worldview, Modern Culture, and Addiction

“The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us… And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.” —T.S. Eliot

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Lift Up Your Hands

I’VE HEARD IT SAID that in days past Christianity had an influence on culture in America; today, however, culture is having an impact on Christianity. One of my mentors at church puts it this way: “There’s too much world in the church and not enough church in the world.” This symptom comes from the relegation of all things religious to the private world, and the banning of all public expression of one’s faith. Nancy Pearcey said, “Not only have we ‘lost the culture,’ but we continue losing even our own children. It’s a familiar but tragic story that devout young people, raised in Christian homes, head off to college and abandon their faith.” (1) How does this happen? Largely because we’re sending our children off to secular education without helping them develop a Christian worldview. They can’t keep what they don’t understand.

Trevor Hart believes Christian theology must be a matter of activity, not just a subject to be studied. Today,  the hallmark of intellectual inquiry in everyday living appeals exclusively to reason and empirically established evidence as the only building block for truth. He said, “This account of things, which is widely subscribed to within our culture, can be traced back some three and a half centuries to the origins of the so-called European Enlightenment.” (2) Hart said one particular manifestation of this factor is the chasm between public and private spheres. Certainly, this view has greatly contributed to Christianity’s ineffective influence in culture. The “public” sector Hart refers to is the realm of universally-owned or agreed knowledge. If something is “public” truth, then it must be something which everyone can know to be true—a truth available to observation or self-evident to human reasoning.

Public and Private Venues

Today, we’re told to the “private” realm belong all statements or propositions which (for whatever reason) do not permit public scrutiny. Hart wrote, “The private sphere is the sphere of values, matters of opinion and beliefs; anything, in fact, the truth or falsity of which cannot in principle be demonstrated on publicly agreed terms.” (3) This phenomenon leads to comments like That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to hold it; but unless you prove it to be true I am compelled to reject it. Admittedly, the deck is stacked against faith and religion and in favor of science and “proven fact.” Hart believes the “passport” for bringing faith into the public realm is “justification by reason.” Christian faith is generally considered by our society to belong to the category of unproven and unprovable. To speak of such private beliefs in public is simply not condoned. Although faith is the usual motivation for theology, those who advocate for investigation solely on empirical evidence believe faith must remain on the sidelines, giving way to the pursuit of truth based upon reason alone.

Hart believes absolutism is born of arrogance. I concur. Many individuals today shout down any explicit expression of faith in public. It is their conclusion that the truth of the Christian story is not, nor will it ever be, demonstrable. Of course, another element of this is the opinion that truth is never something absolute or universal, but always relative to a particular context—cultural, historical, linguistic, religious, or whatever. We call this conclusion moral relativism. Relativism refers to an ethical system in which right and wrong are not absolute and unchanging but relative to one’s culture (cultural relativism) or one’s own personal preferences (moral subjectivism). Of course we see both forms widely embraced in today’s society. These concepts are directly related to the multiculturalism and pluralism rampant in Western civilization.

Worldview with Earth

How we experience and define the world and our place in it is called our worldview. Wilhelm Dilthey said, “The basic role of a worldview is to present the relationship of the human mind to the riddle of the world and life.” (4) Worldviews vary greatly, but they typically share some common elements: the certainty of death; cruelty of the natural process; general transitoriness. Accordingly, a worldview begins as a cosmic concept and then, through a complex interrelation between us and our world, develops into a more sophisticated and detailed sense of who we are and what is the nature of that which surrounds us. Coupled with a growing sense of values, a highest order of our practical behavior (comprehensive plan of life, highest good, highest norms of action, and shaping of our personal life) takes hold of and defines our thought and experience.

We are speaking of a clash of worldviews. Will Durant said, “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.”

A Christian Perspective

Herman Dooyeweerd believes theoretical thought does not necessarily lie at the base of one’s worldview. More fundamental than any worldview delineated by religious faith is the orientation of one’s heart. Referring to Dooyeweerd, James Sire wrote, “All human endeavor stems not from worldview, but from the spiritual commitments of the heart.” (5) Sire believes there are only two basic commitments in Christianity, leading to two basic conditions of life: “man converted to God” and “man averted from God.” C.S. Lewis treated Christian ideas with clarity and creativity, painstakingly dissecting their importance and relation to overall philosophy and individual challenge. Lewis held the belief that we are all philosophers to some extent. It was his goal to reach philosophia perennis—ultimate and permanently true philosophy.

To this end, Lewis posited that a Christian worldview must be a hybrid of philosophy and theology. He thought this would be highly advantageous because both disciplines generate knowledge in their own distinctive ways. Philosophy employs reason, building on commonly available information, to decide the most fundamental queries about life and the world. Theology draws from Scripture, ecclesiastics, established doctrine, and the historical experiences of the community of believers to articulate knowledge about God in a systematic manner. Lewis believed the truths established by philosophy and theology were compatible. I see this as another application of “all truth is God’s truth.”

Christian apologist James Orr (1844-1913) set out to provide a complete, coherent, rationally defensible exposition of Christianity that would stand up to the intellectual and cultural challenges of his day.  Orr supported the belief that the Christian faith is a christocentric, self-authenticating system of biblical truth characterized by inner integrity, rational coherence, empirical verisimilitude, and existential power. Sire says, “Worldviews have their source deep in the constitution of human nature and involve both the intellect and the actions we perform” (italics mine). (6) Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” (7) We must live our theology, without which it is merely a collection of data.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) believed every worldview has a single conception from which the whole worldview flows. He supported the need for all thought to proceed from a single principle: what he called a fixed point of departure. Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) believed the religious or faith orientation of the heart was more fundamental than any worldview that can be delineated by ideas and propositions. He said, “Theory and practice are a product of the will, not the intellect; of the heart, not the head.” (8) Accordingly, he believed worldviews are pretheoretical commitments that are in direct contact not so much with the mind as the heart—involving experience; the living of life. Soren Kierkegaard said Christian conversion necessarily leads to the formation of a new “life-view.” Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2, NRSV) (italics mine).

Ronald Nash provides a very concise description of worldview: “In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life… [It] is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.” (9) I’d like to present a longer comment from Nash before addressing what I hope to be a unique look at a “negative” or “bad” worldview; one I held while in active addiction. Nash wrote:

A worldview may well be defined as one’s comprehensive framework of basic beliefs about things, but our talk (confessed beliefs or cognitive claims) is one thing, and our walk (operational beliefs) is another and even more important thing. A lived worldview defines one’s basic convictions; it defines what one is ready to live and die for.

Worldview of an Addict

Hung Over

Worldview is how a person views the world. A person’s worldview consists of the values and ideals—the fundamental belief system—that determine his attitudes, beliefs and, ultimately, his behavior. Typically, this includes his view of issues such as the nature of God, man, the meaning of life, nature, death, and right and wrong. It is not difficult to imagine how the worldview of an addict might be skewed away from what most people consider proper attitude, belief, and behavior. We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. This is, at least in part, the concept of nature versus nurture.

Here are the basic questions we must answer to determine our worldview, and my responses while in active addiction:

  • Is there a god and what is he like?  Maybe. I think so, but I’m not sure. Besides, who cares if there is? He doesn’t love me or want me. I might not be “God” but I want the job. I want to be in charge of me!
  • What is the nature and origin of the universe? Who knows? Who cares? I doubt something came from nothing, but I’m not interested in finding out.
  • What is the nature and origin of man? I don’t think I came from an ape, but I sure act like one! I’m smart, so I should be able to read about this issue and make up my own mind. Some day. Not today.
  • What happens to man after death? I think the Bible has it right. There is a place for the “good” people and the “bad” people. I’ve always been a piece of crap who cannot love or respect others. Instead, I deceive and manipulate them. There probably is a Hell and I’m headed there. My “sins” are too great. Jesus saved everyone but me! I cannot be redeemed so might as well “live it up,” taking what I want.
  • Where does knowledge come from? Good question! I have an IQ of 127 but it does me absolutely no good. My father said, “If you’re so smart, why are you so dumb?” My “smarts” came from me reading, learning, doing. I make my own rules and definitions.
  • What is the basis of ethics and morality? Ethics is whatever I say it is. Morality? No one is truly moral. It’s all “relative” to the person or circumstance. If cannibalism is okay, then I am free to do whatever I deem fit for the situation. It’s “dog eat dog.” It’s all about getting what you want at any cost. And I love the idea of paybacks!
  • What is the meaning of human history? Maybe Darwin was right! Life seems to be every man for himself. I need to adapt. Be a chameleon. Be whatever it takes to get what I want and need. Our entire history has been about survival of the fittest, even from a social perspective.

What It’s Like Now

God has given me a great gift. It starts with life itself. There are numerous situations which, by odds, should have ended in my death. I overdosed on an opiate one afternoon and needed emergency care. I do not remember the event—going unresponsive; the neighbor coming over to try reviving me; the ambulance ride to the trauma center; yelling horrible obscenities at my mother and begging to go home; pulling my IV out, blood everywhere; being transferred to my hospital room. I became aware of my surroundings the next morning when I woke up in a hospital bed. I’ve driven while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol countless times but never crashed, killed myself, killed others, or ended up in a wheelchair. I’ve been homeless. I’ve put myself in dangerous circumstances just to score drugs. I continued drinking a fifth of vodka a day despite ulcers, elevated liver enzymes, and pancreatitis. I’ve operated a vehicle at speeds in excess of 100 miles-per-hour. Being a “garbage head,” I snorted, swallowed, smoked, and huffed nearly anything that would “do the trick.”

I went from hating myself for 59 years to finally loving myself. Today, I have forgiven myself for the harmful and twisted way I lived for over 40 years, no longer regretting my past or pretending it never happened; instead, I see it now as an asset for helping others. I am motivated today to teach to others the lessons I had to learn the hard way. Loving myself has made it possible to love others. It has also shown me what true unconditional love looks like (1 Cor. 13). I have forgiven all those (whether real or imagined) who treated me badly, no longer using it as an excuse to behave badly. I understand original sin and fully comprehend the “struggle” Paul wrote about in Romans 7. I have forgiven others for their unforgiving attitude toward me, seeing me through their eyes.

I have finally come to accept my powerlessness over drugs and alcohol, as well as pornography, emotional eating, and spending money to “feel good.” Paul put powerlessness into perspective:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom. 7:15-20, 24-25).

I used to have a very chaotic and unsettled lifestyle. My “default mode” or my “center” was anxiety. I had no peace; no quite moments. I couldn’t sit still. My mind wandered every time I read a book, and I was prone to daydreaming during a movie. My nights were filled with restless worrying and insomnia. As my health and well being began to suffer, I was wracked with depression, anxiety, and chronic physical pain. My degenerative disc disease made it harder to stay away from opiates and cannabis. The great lie I told myself is that I used oxy and weed to escape pain and anxiety. I was not an addict. I needed drugs. I was so very wrong. Despite attending my first 12-step meeting in 2001, I am only sober from booze since 2008 and free of cannabis and opiates for ten months.

Yes, I am powerless. Over many things. But that’s okay. I don’t need to overcome anything by myself. John wrote, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4-5). I spent decades doing whatever I wanted. When circumstances got bad, I tried to fix things by myself. Quitting is actually easy for me; the hard part is staying quit! No worries. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13). And so can you. When we admit our faults, confess them to one another and to God, and take the next right step to move away from deliberate sin, we exponentially increase the odds we will keep on moving and growing.

Footnotes

(1) Nancy Pearsey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, LI: Crossway Publishing, 2005), 19.

(2) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995), 12.

(3) Hart, 13.

(4) Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, in Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History, (Detroit, IL: Wayne State University Press, 1988), 291.

(5) James Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 35.

(6) Sire, 33.

(7) Martin Luther, Operations in Psalmos, quoted by Kelly M. Kapic in A Little Book for New Theologians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 41.

(8) In Naugle, Worldview, 27.

(9) Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1922), 12.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Hierarchy of Church Functions

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

After you read Grudem and McGrath, as well as any appropriate Elwell articles, determine a hierarchy of church function. Your post should classify church functions into primary/essential, secondary/important, and tertiary/optional categories of importance. For example, baptism would be a primary/essential function. Cite a source or give a good justification for those functions which may be contentious, in terms of which category you place them. For example, be prepared to defend your (questionable) decision to place worship in the tertiary/optional category. In last session’s discussion we dealt with what the church is. Here we discuss what the church does, based on what it is.

Over the centuries, hierarchy and structure of the Christian church has become somewhat cumbersome and convoluted at times. Scripture is not silent on proper organization and governance. Christ is the Head of the Church; its chief cornerstone; the First Apostle. Arguments over church operation have included whether women should teach or lead a church congregation. Consider Grudem’s conclusion as an indication that these types of concerns are open for discussion without compromising church hierarchy. He indicates that the form of government adopted by a church is not a major point of doctrine.

Proper church function is vital to the success of a local congregation. Regarding authority, Christ is the “head” of the church. To deviate from this is to risk losing the true mission of the Church: to go forth into all nations, teaching, and making disciples of all men. New Testament churches should operate according to the Greatest Commandment—love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. The bulk of primary/essential functions at my church include evangelism, pastoral teaching, water baptism, Sunday school teaching, and corporate worship. Secondary/important functions include outreach ministry (visiting the sick, shut-ins, inmates in local prisons), AWANA (a nationwide program directed toward children K through 5th grade); teen outreach; charity programs (including our benevolent fund), marriage ceremonies, memorial and funeral services, and liaison with other local churches and faith-based radio stations. Our tertiary/optional functions include holiday and other celebratory activities, operation of a church library, coffee meets between Sunday school and worship service, support of our parochial Sunbury Christian Academy (K-12), housing for visiting speakers and guests.

I also prepared and submitted the following definitions relative to church hierarchy:

Pastor (Pastoral Theology)

To me, it is quite revealing to understand the scope of a “pastor.” The Greek word used in the New Testament for pastor (poimēn) is not used elsewhere to identify elders or other church officers. Typically, pastor is a verb, meaning “to act as a shepherd.” For example, the apostle Paul instructs elders to shepherd the church of God (see Acts 20:28). Additionally, believers are often referred to as the flock. This is a good lead-in to pastoral theology. J.A. Lyon says pastoral theology incorporates all the key doctrinal components of ministry as they relate to shepherding the Church. [1] Admittedly, this guideline is a bit too broad for defining pastoral theology as it deals specifically with the office of pastor as shepherd. A pastor has many responsibilities. How he administers them has a lot to do with the call God has placed on him. The so-called five-fold ministry indicates the following gifts given for ministry: apostles; prophets; evangelists; pastors and teachers (see Eph. 4:11).

Leading biblical scholars believe the last of the gifts (pastors and teachers) should be referred to as pastor/teacher. Perhaps the answer lies in the Greek Interlinear translation. The Greek word for “pastor” in verse 11 indicates “shepherds,” which is distinct from the Greek word that clearly means “teachers.” Clearly, pastors teach; they shepherd and lead. Obviously, not all teachers are pastors or shepherds. The head elder in my home church assumes a great deal of responsibility whenever our pastor is ill or away for a seminar or vacation. Several other elders have also given the message, but none have ever presided over the Lord’s Supper when our pastor is away. This has always fallen to the head elder.

Whenever “pastor” refers to shepherding in the New Testament, it is in relation to the congregation, and usually encompasses preaching, counseling, care, prayer, evangelism, worship, corporate leadership, ecclesiology, and all other practical responsibilities that lend themselves to leading and teaching a congregation in the ways of Jesus Christ. Certainly, it is for this reason that a “universal” definition of pastor is difficult to determine. Admittedly, pastoral theology is a new term; however, the New Testament contains numerous examples of the duties typically performed by a pastor. The role of one called to the office of pastor is multifaceted, but it is always specific to his relation to and responsibilities for the “flock,” his congregation. He is the head of his congregation as Christ is the head of the Church.

Elder

Specific to the Old Testament, “elder” was often used to identify “elders of the people” or “elders of Israel.” As such, Moses was considered an elder. The office of elder went through several transitions under the Old Covenant. Joshua 20 provides a detailed guide for how to properly deal with a person who has killed a man by accident (without malice aforethought). The individual who killed a man in such fashion was to present his case to the elders of any city designated as a refuge. He was then provided asylum and the avenger was denied access to the offender. Elders had a hand in political and governmental decisions (see 1 Sam. 4:3; 8:4; and later in Ezra 5:9-17). Under society in the Old Testament, elders were given authority relative to their age and experience. R. S. Wallace also notes in “Elders” that during the Maccabean period “elders of Israel” indicated membership in the Sanhedrin. [2]

In the New Testament, elders are most often associated with scribes and chief priests. Elders were also identified as “presbyters” (Gr. Persbyteroi) who worked alongside apostles, prophets, and teachers. In this regard, “elder” does not refer to a specific “office” or separate ministry; rather, they are adjunct to ministry. Elders often assumed the role of church governance in the New Testament. For example, when Paul and Barnabas “and some of the others” were called to Jerusalem to debate the theological impact of circumcision for non-Jewish believers in Christ, they presented their argument to the apostles and the elders. The Greek “apostles” is different from the word for “elders.”

Elders today frequently perform oversight of the business and spiritual operation of a local church. My home church has a board of seven elders, which features a head elder and six others. The head elder does not have single authority or “veto” privileges over the others. Rather, he is charged with maintaining order whenever the elders meet, and he provides the board and, ostensibly, the congregation, with guidance. In addition to his oversight duties with the board of elders, our head elder is “second” in line of teaching duties to the congregation on Sunday mornings, in individual Sunday school classes, and at Wednesday night Bible study. One of our elders has extensive experience in banking, finance, and budgeting, and is responsible for advising the board of elders accordingly. He also prepares and present a semi-annual financial report to the congregation en mass. Another elder oversees our benevolent fund.

Deacon

The term “deacon” typically indicates a helper or servant of a ministry or church. I could find no reference to deacon in the Old Testament. The office of elder in the early Christian Church was based on the same office in Jewish synagogues as described in the New Testament. In Philippians 1:1, Paul writes to the church at Philippi, addressing the saints in Jesus Christ, together with the bishops and deacons. A notation regarding deacons in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) identifies them as “overseers or helpers.” [3] The Greek word for “deacon” (diakonos) translates as “server.” The position seems to have morphed from server of meals at church (see John 2:5, 9) to care for the home and/or personal help. In Judaism, service was accomplished through alms.

In the Greek interlinear Bible, a literal translation of John 12:26 says, “If me anyone serves [sic], me let him follow [sic], and where Am I, there also the servant my will be [sic]; if anyone me serves [sic], will honour him the Father [sic].” [4] The word “serves” in the Greek is diakonia, which translates “service” or “to serve,” and the word “servant” is from the Greek word dianonon. Acts 6 provides a perfect explanation for the debut of a formal diaconate, or office of deacon. The disciples had become quite busy with their ministry, saying it was not effective for them to take time away from their official duties to wait on tables (providing food to the poor and the widowed). Acts 6:3 says, “Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” The original seven deacons referenced in Acts 6:1-7 are identified as the first deacons by later tradition, but they held no ecclesiastical office. “To wait tables” literally meant to feed the hungry.  

Deacons at my home church are typically involved in greeting, collecting the offerings, serving communion the first Sunday of each month, and are usually on the serving line during church meals. Men appointed to the position of deacon in the Early Church were brought before the apostles, who laid hands on them (see Acts 6:6). My home church accepts annual nominations for the office of deacon, and a “blind” election is held wherein the congregation is given ballot forms with the names of the nominees. We merely check “yes” or “no” without putting our names or any indicating marks. The votes are tallied and announced before the congregational meeting is adjourned.

Footnotes

[1] J.A. Lyon, “Pastoral Theology” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 644-45.

[2] R. S. Wallace, “Elder” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 266.

[3] The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), 5th ed., Michael D. Coogan, editor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1702.

[4] The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament, Alfred Marshall, translator (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1976), 420.