Thursday, December 10, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

This is Me Painting a Bullseye On My Head...

I have a mostly-faded bumper sticker on my 1996 Lumina, nestled in amongst the many other sun-bleached slogans (and the still new and vibrant Ted Wins sticker), that reads EMBRACE THE TENSION. I bought it from myself on Café Press.

In addition to sounding deep, this phrase ("embrace the tension") is really the center of my theology. What many have called "mystery" or "paradox," I think is better described as theological tension. And, of course, when we humans come into contact with tension, our natural response is to ask, "How can I remove it?" Whether, we're talking about a relationship, a headache, or a tug-of-war contest, we see tension as a negative, and usually we won't rest until we've done away with it.

That's why Christianity—in its truest form—is such a hard sell, particularly to Westerners who really have the corner on approaching every tension as a logical problem to be solved. Christianity, at every turn, is concerned with owning the tension present when finite beings commune with, and try to understand, an infinite God. There's tension everywhere: God is transcendent and immanent. God is fully revealed and fully concealed (thank you, Karl Barth). God is three and one. Christ is human and divine. We are justified and sinful. God elects his own and exhorts us to preach the Gospel to all people. I could go on and on.

And what happens when a very analytical Western mind (like mine) starts trying to over-categorize and over-define these tension-filled doctrines? We fall into error. Either by inappropriately emphasizing one side of the tension to the detriment of the other (see: tritheism and modalism; Arianism and docetism; antinomianism and perfectionism) or by splitting the difference, thus creating some half-baked, half-way, tensionless Christianity.

After all, while "God is three, not really one" and "God is one, not really three" are classic Trinitarian heresies, the mean approach, "God is two," is so far out there, it doesn't even have a name ("bitheism," I guess). Another example: orthodox theology understands Christ as being human and divine (meaning Christ has two wills). That's a tension. To try and resolve this tension, the Monophysites tried splitting the difference, saying that Christ was sort of a hybrid half-God, half-man. This too is a dangerous heresy with far-reaching implications, even on the atonement.

It was finally making some peace with these tensions that led me away from Dispensationalism, to an amillennial view, recognizing that the Kingdom will neither be entirely realized in this world (a la postmillennialism) nor is it entirely for the Last Day and the days after that (a la premillennialism). Rather, the Kingdom is both already and not yet (as is reflected in our praying, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.")

So far, so good, right? Here's where the aforementioned bullseye gets firmly applied to my cranium. I believe that this theological tension should be applied to how we define the church, who is in the church, what constitutes a true church, etc. In short, to use a dirty word, I'm talking about Christian ecumenism.

Scripture teaches us to judge others carefully by their fruit (yes, Jesus told us to judge, John 7:24) , to determine if they are truly Gospel preachers and faithful teachers, or whether they are ravenous wolves, false prophets, depositors of dangerous leaven. Jesus also prayed that his followers would be one, even as He and the Father are one (John 17). Jesus told his disciples both, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Matthew 9:40) and, "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30). Jesus warned that wheat and chaff would grow side-by-side until the end (Matthew 13:30), while other passages indicate that the visible church is holy, separate unto God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 John 2:19).

Again, tension abounds. And, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, an attempt to compromise by splitting the difference is an absurd non-option. As a result, many Christians just run to one extreme or the other, clinging to their favorite proof-text while ignoring their opponents' choice verses (or re-interpreting them in light of one's own presuppositions). The result is twofold.

First, there are Christians and churches who would never even begin to define what makes a Christian. Doctrine is glossed over (after all, who am I to say?). Everything is considered a non-essential preference. The passive voice abounds. Go ahead and deny the divinity of Christ, the atonement, the resurrection, whatever—we can all sort of agree on a vague "parenthood of God and siblinghood of man" idea. Whatever it takes to avoid offending the golden calf of inclusiveness. This is the kind of ecumenism I hate. The kind that marks all doctrinal differences as out-of-bounds for discussion and sweeps them under the rug.

Then, there are Christians who go to the separatist extreme. Everything becomes an essential doctrine, especially if it can, in any way, be tied to how we understand what Christ did on the cross (although the more Fundie churches will disfellowship you for the most random, outlying belief). Much like the bishops of Rome and Constantinople simultaneously excommunicating each other, you wind up with Calvinists and Arminians trading anathemas, charismatics and cessationists mocking each other from the pulpit, and believers of all stripes making an absolute mockery of Christ's high priestly prayer (which, I could argue, constitutes a kind of practical Trinitarian heresy, as we grossly misrepresent the way Christ is in the Father and the Father in Christ).

This is the basis of a song I wrote a few years ago. (Yes, I'm an amateur musician, or at least used to be, and still enjoy writing music). A couple months ago, I tried laying it down in something of a flat-note-fest, and posted it to my facebook page. A couple of my facebook "friends" sent me strongly-worded rebukes and one of them, with a click, dissolved our "friend"ship.

Yeah, it's that kind of deal. So in this, my hundredth blog post, let me blow your mind with my horrible, horrible ecumenism:

  • At a youth work camp, this past summer, while we were meeting in the sanctuary of a Catholic church, one of our kids asked if Catholics are Christians. I answered, "Yes, of course."

  • I am part of an inter-denominational clergy group comprised of ABC, PC-USA, ELCA, UMC, UCC, Episcopals, and several very socially active, predominantly African-American denominations. And I love it when we worship together.

  • I signed the Manhattan Declaration, not because I think it will do any good, but because I saw so many self-designated protectors of the Reformation getting their boxers in a bunch because the document was somehow watering down the Gospel.

  • Tent revivals and Pentecostal preaching really get me excited, as long as the cross, blood, and wrath of God are clearly preached (and they usually are).

  • I still love Billy Graham and still want to meet him before he dies.

So, I'm just a theological liberal, right? Well, consider:

  • I'm a five-point Calvinist. Every week from my pulpit, I preach total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Sometimes I touch on limited atonement :).

  • I believe that, while he was defeating Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and giving us an example of how to love each other (1 John 3:16), the primary effect of the cross was that Christ bore the wrath of God in our stead.

  • I reject all "purpose-driven," seeker-oriented, man-centered approaches to the church and the Gospel.

  • I subscribe to the 2nd London Baptist Confession.

  • I believe that God created the world out of nothing and created humans as humans at the beginning of time.

  • I believe in a literal virgin birth, resurrection, and Second Coming. I believe that Jesus Christ was (and is) GOD IN THE FLESH.

  • I believe that Jonah was very literally swallowed by a whale and very literally puked onto a beach.

Tension, tension, tension. Am I trying to eat my cake and still have it? If so, I guess that's the case with the dual nature of Christ and the Trinity as well. Am I placing my brand of ecumenism on the same level of importance as these central doctrines? Of course not. But I do believe that the same theological tension is present.

I have more to say on the subject, particularly 1.) how Baptist distinctives have informed my ecumenism and my living out of same, and 2.) how I can worship with someone whose understanding of salvation differs from my own. But I shall do that in my next post. For now, the bullseye has been painted. Take your shots.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Thursday, December 3, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

The Long and Short of It.

This Week's Sermon(s)
2009, weeks 47 & 48

How do you make up for preaching a fifty-one minute sermon? Easy--follow it up with a twenty-five minute sermon. Here are the next two messages in my series on First John:

Sinless of Sin Less? pt. 1 and Sinless or Sin Less? pt. 2 - John keeps laying on the theological tension in 1:8-2:2. To summarize,
1. If you claim fellowship with God but live a life of sin, you're lying;
2. If you claim that you live a life without sin, you're lying;
3. You should live a life without sin.

How can anyone hope to live a faithful Christian life in light of these statements? The answer is rooted, not in us, but in the cross.

As always, you can access all my sermons at

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

"And it came to pass..."

Thanksgiving was three days ago. Before the Turkey and the stuffing commenced (yeah, that was a pun), I found myself at about 11:30 in the morning chasing my son around my in-laws’ back yard. He’d grown listless during the hour and a half car ride and, after a semi-traumatic encounter with a beagle puppy in serious need of some Ritalin, Calvin clearly needed to be taken outside for a spell. He ran, rolled, hopped, and criss-crossed the yard, labeling everything he thought he could identify (including about twenty items designated "wheel!"), before plopping down in some mulch to recharge and explore the dirt, stones, and bits of bark.

I sat down next to him, looked around contentedly, and said to him, "It’s a nice day, isn’t it?" It took a minute for me to realize how weird that sounded. It was gray and overcast, chilly (41˚ according to, and a little windy. A "nice day" if you live in Seattle. Or Liverpool. Or Michigan in November. And yet, I wasn’t being sarcastic. To me, it’s a nice day if you could conceivably get in a bike ride: if it’s not raining (much) or sleeting, not too hot or too cold. In fact, I like 41˚; the chill in the air makes me feel a little more alive.

And I don’t think it was just the contentment that comes with Thanksgiving Day talking. While people from the Deep South put on their giant Arctic parkas and Ushankas when the mercury dips into the low 40s, Cal and I were just sporting spring jackets (which I ditched when all the running and puffing sent my heart rate and body temperature north). Of course Southerners would say that they’re used to the heavy heat while we’re at home in the cold, but I don’t accept that (I mean, have they ever been to the U.P. on an August afternoon? Talk about heat…). After all, Southerners just go from air conditioned offices to air conditioned cars to air conditioned homes. I’ve seen them. They don’t own the heat the way we Michiganders own our cold.

As the seasons change and even as the snow flies, the colder whether doesn’t drive us inside, it calls many of us out to hiking, hunting, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and just wandering around. It’s a fact that I walk my dog much more in December than I do in July. We don’t really mind the cold. And yet, for some reason, we never stop complaining about the weather. When it’s sunny and humid, we wish it was cool. When it’s snowy and freezing, we wish it was warm.

But on Thanksgiving, I was glad it was forty-one and overcast. And I was glad my son is a year and a half old. I often look forward to how fun it will be when he can talk and reason and we can have conversations about his interests, dreams, favorite movies, etc. When he’ll get my bad jokes and make his own. But right now, he’s more fun than he’s ever been. He’s learning a half-dozen words a day and finding humor in everything.

In a culture where the Christmas decorations start appearing the day after Halloween, where people are always looking forward to the next season, the next car, the next house, the next promotion, the next whatever, thinking that it holds the key to their happiness… it’s nice to enjoy just where you are and what you’ve got at the moment.

Mark Lowry (a Gospel singer and sometimes-comedian) has a great bit about this on one of his albums. It goes like this:

I've got a great Scripture for you. This is my favorite Scripture, my life verse. I love this verse. It says this: ‘And it came to pass...’

[An awkward silence, followed by laughter]

I love that verse, don't you? ‘And it came to pass’—it didn't come to stay. It came to pass! No matter where you are on that experience it will pass.

Hey, you young 18-year-old jocks with muscles in your earlobes: enjoy them! They will pass!

You older crowd, 45 and up, you've got gray hair now. Some of you've got blue hair. (You know who you are.) Some of you got no hair. Some of you went out and bought you some hair, didn't ya? Enjoy it! It will pass!

Hey, you may have arthritis living in your joints. It will pass. Either it will pass or you will pass. Either way, it came to pass.

No matter where you are in your life, it will pass. Did you have a bad year last year? Hold on, it will pass. Did you have a good year last year? Hold on, it will pass. No matter what you are going through, this too shall pass.

I see so many Christians pining away this life, waiting for the next. My friends, Jesus didn’t come to rescue you from this life. He came to give you life more abundant. He came to give meaning and purpose to the things in life that were once just empty routine. We now do them to the glory of God. Each day comes with its own blessings and its own challenges (sometimes one more than the other), but each day is a gift from God.

If anyone should be able to enjoy Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving, snow in winter, heat in August, and overcast gray in November, it’s a Christian. Paul the apostle wrote that he had learned to be content in all things. I often read that as "I’ve learned to put up with all things," but that’s not what he said. Whether he was shipwrecked on Malta or under house arrest in Rome, the Apostle seems to have embraced Mark Lowry’s life philosophy: Enjoy it. This too shall pass.

May we do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria,
         Pastor Zach