Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Ecumenical Evanglism?!


Do me a favor and skim the Michigan Historical Marker to the left, which you can find outside a beautiful old church building in the happening Old Town district of Lansing, Michigan. I want to point out three phrases: “The First Presbyterian Church,” “prominent Methodist,” and “Gospel Preaching.” If you know anything about the history and family tree of Protestant denominations, you know that Methodists and Presbyterians are quite separated by doctrine and tradition. Methodism is very much Arminian, while Presbyterians have historically embraced the doctrine of election. And yet, here we read about a prominent Methodist providing land for a Presbyterian church under the condition that this church provide Old Town (then Lower Town) with Gospel preaching.

If my church (read: the congregation under my care) had one of those historical markers (which we could almost certainly procure, but haven’t because they cost thousands of dollars and serve as something of a pair of shackles, limiting what you can do with your “historic site”), it would tell a similar story:

Judson Baptist was the first church founded in South Lansing (which was, at the time, south of Lansing), an area that was booming with Oldsmobile employees and seeing new workers daily being added to the budding neighborhoods and farmers who had been working the land for generations. A group of several dozen women first started a non-denominational Sunday school program for the children of South Lansing, whom they feared would otherwise have no means of hearing the Gospel. In 1925, a Presbyterian man organized this effort in an old schoolhouse. Over the next few years, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, and Methodist churches worked to support this outreach, eventually adding preaching for adults in the afternoon. Progress was very slow.

Judson Church Cornerstone
In late 1928, a representative of the Michigan Baptist Convention offered assistance in establishing a church proper, and the group unanimously accepted the offer. By 1931 (right smack in the middle of the depression), they had laid the cornerstone for the building where Judson Memorial Baptist Church still worships every week.

So, not only did we bring Methodists and Presbyterians together, but also Congregationalists and two different Baptist churches! The name for this sort of activity is “Ecumenical Evangelism,” and for some reason this has become a four-letter word in many of the circles in which I travel and operate. For example, a while back, I was looking into using the services of www.sermonaudio.com to host the growing collection of sermons we offer online. However, I found that I could not check the box of the site’s Articles of Faith, which listed rejection of ecumenical evangelism right along side the virgin birth of Our Lord and the atonement. (This proved providential, as the free services of www.archive.org are a better match for us, anyway.) Some of the major Calvinistic “coalition” and “alliance” type groups also have similar principles worked into their core beliefs and statements of faith.

Now, I acknowledge the slipperiness of this term: “ecumenical” can mean (and, today, often does mean) “spanning all religions,” in which case ecumenical evangelism becomes a complete oxymoron, as Mormons, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus could never cooperate in their efforts to proselytize or even to proclaim good news any more specific than “Some sort of God or gods love you, so be nice to each other.” If I encountered such “evangelism,” after I finished scratching my head, I would join in condemning it.

But the meaning of “ecumenical” in the Christian church, has historically referred more often to that which pertains to the entire Church universal (e.g. the First Ecumenical Council). In that sense, I would argue that ecumenical evangelism is nothing short of the most efficient and Christ-honoring way of carrying out the Great Commission. If churches and denominations can avoid duplicating efforts, many more can be reached. Christians—true Christians— of all stripes can proclaim together the basic message of salvation by God’s grace, by the blood of Christ, through faith in Him. We can together proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, calling sinners to repent, to confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to believe in their hearts that God has raised Him from the dead. Sadly, this type of “ecumenical evangelism” is often what is meant when websites, churches, and para-church organizations call ecumenical evangelism a slippery slope, an affront to the Gospel, an abomination, etc.

And yet the rolls of Judson Baptist Church are filled with the names of Christians who may never have heard the Gospel preached if it weren’t for that slippery slope. As are the rolls of North Presbyterian Church, which recently moved out of the Old Town building (left) and merged with Westminster Presbyterian. The Michigan Historic Site in question is now the home of the primarily African-American (yet diverse) congregation called Epicenter of Worship, pastored by Sean Holland and his wife Tayana. I’ve met Sean several times, heard him preach, and regularly check out the church’s video blog, which is always filled with solid Bible teaching. Also of note is that Epicenter (which, until recently, met in the building of First Baptist, downtown) shares part of their facility with the Resurrection Life East Church, a charismatic-ish congregation with unofficial ties to the mega-church in Grandville. If you're getting confused trying to keep all this straight: good.

That’s right, I don’t sweat it when the labels and brand names within the body of Christ get blurred and blurry. I acknowledge that any kind of ecumenism or Church unity always carries with it potential dangers. But so does a spirit of exclusivity and ultra-separation. And I’ll face the dangers of the former—and reap its blessings—rather than build up walls and hunker down any day.

I’m sorry I can't sign your Articles of Faith; my view of the Church of Christ as bigger, wider, and more diverse than my own little corner of the Kingdom won't let me.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Thursday, June 2, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Damnable Prayers, Spoken or Implied

In Mark 9, a man encountered Jesus’ power to heal and restore, and responded by bursting out,
Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!
What a beautiful, succinct, and honest prayer: I have some faith, Lord, but give me more. Squeeze out the pockets of darkness with your light, and help me to cultivate a living, vibrant belief in you. Yeah, those six little words (just five words in the original Greek) are pregnant with theological and personal meaning.

And, yet, it’s not enough for us today, is it? Today, we say, “Lord, help me embrace my unbelief.” Because acknowledging that you do believe is not “authentic” enough for today’s spiritual climate. Just like it’s now uncouth to claim that you know with certainty anything at all about God (even those things that God’s Word tells us with certainty). There’s a new standard for faith gaining momentum, and it is unfaith. In the last few years, pastors have even begun regularly stating and over-stating the shaky and tenuous nature of their own belief from the pulpit. (“Sure, I’m a pastor, but most of the time I wonder if there’s any God at all.”)

Lord, help me embrace my unbelief.

But that’s not the only update we’ve made to the Bible's picture of faith and how we live it out. Along with sacramentalizing a lack of belief, we’ve also baptized a lack of preparation. In describing the cost involved in following Him as Lord, Jesus said, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30, esv). This is wisdom. In approaching matters of faith, we should inventory, prepare, and consider whether we will be able to follow a particular enterprise through to the end. The book of Proverbs also echoes this sentiment consistently.

But that’s not enough for us today either, is it? The new mark of faith is to rush headfirst into any endeavor, only to find ourselves unprepared, under-committed, and ultimately unwilling. Then, we say to God, “This is your work, God, so you better do something about it. Bless my impulsiveness and lack of wisdom.” And later, when we tell the story to other Christians, this is painted as stepping out “in faith.” Counting the cost is out, running up a tab and then pinning it on Daddy to bail us out with a miracle is in.

If you’ve been at my church the last couple of Sundays, you know why I’m mulling over this stuff right now. It’s because, two Sundays ago, I prayed my own foolish prayer. The gist of it was, “Lord, bless my foolishness,” but it more specifically went something like: “Well, Lord, I feel like I can barely walk into the sanctuary, but it’s about time for the sermon. So you’d better give me the strength to power through.” I don’t know that I even prayed that prayer as such (i.e. I didn’t “speak it in my mind”), but it was implied.

Of course, halfway through the sermon (if you can call it that), I mumbled something about coyotes and hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. And I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little miffed with the Good Lord for failing to answer my prayer. After all, didn’t it show a ton of faith and perseverance for me to throw wisdom to the winds and step up to the pulpit anyway? Wasn’t it a laudable thing to undertake a sacred duty—proclaiming God’s Holy Word—when I was completely ill-equipped to do it at the moment? In retrospect, those are pretty stupid questions. But at the time, I was operating in the categories of the “new and improved faith,” the kind of “faith” that doesn’t count the cost, but over-commits and leaves God in the awkward position of being expected to bless my foolishness.

Ultimately, I was expecting special treatment from God—an exemption from the principles of biblical wisdom—simply because I was me, or maybe because I’m on his payroll. Either way, these are principles native to the kingdom of this age, not the Kingdom of God.

Now, let me clarify. When I call this idea “new,” I mean that it’s currently experiencing a resurgence; strictly speaking, it’s anything but new. The Scriptures are full of people throwing up foolish prayers and making foolish vows to God. Remember in Jeremiah 21, when King Zedekiah asked God to set his holiness aside, overlook the sins of the people, and give them victory against Nebuchadnezzar? (Translation: “Lord, bless our sin and hardheartedness.”) Or the men who swore an oath to God that they would not eat until they had orchestrated the death of Paul? (Translation: “Lord, bless our hate because we’ve dressed it up as piety.”)

Church history has its own damnable prayers. St. Augustine (before he had the “St.”) famously prayed for some time, “Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet!” (Translation: “Lord, bless my carnality because I have big plans to be righteous later on.”) And even after the Reformation, some ├╝ber-righteous church leaders told William Carey not to go overseas, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the precious peoples of India and beyond, because “If God wants to save the savages, he will do it without your help.” (Translation: “Lord, bless our laziness, callousness, and xenophobia, even as you make our wallets fatter.”)

The modern church continues this legacy of foolish, misplaced prayers. Big-name Christian singers and preachers, caught in compromising positions, more often publicly pronounce that they need not repent; after all, they prayed for God to “release them” from this commandment or that, and he answered in the affirmative! And even local churches, whether implicitly or explicitly, pray God’s blessings upon tactics, motives, unions, and behaviors that are clearly counter to God’s revealed Word. And yet, by the current reckoning, this just shows lots of faith and a “big view” of God’s grace.

I imagine most of these people knew their prayers were foolish as they uttered them. I sure did as I began trying to sputter my way through one of the most difficult texts I’ve ever preached, even while my vision swam. But if we know it’s foolish, why do we pray at all? Why not just leave God out of the equation, as many have, and “do what thou wilt?” I think it’s the same reason people clamor to surround themselves with false teachers who will say whatever their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3): because, in the flesh, we want a false assurance that God is okay with our sin and foolishness, the he is in fact in favor of them and will bless them, rather than to hear God’s Word proclaimed as it is, convicting us and driving us to the cross, where we will repent, be forgiven, and be changed.

At the end of the day, praying a lot (even from motives that look super-spiritual) is no guarantor of true godliness. Selfish and misguided prayers are offered up by millions of people every day. The question is: what are we praying for, in what spirit, and especially, are we submitting the content and spirit of our prayers to God’s Word? Or are we asking God to give us our own little loophole in light of our special circumstances and our years of faithful service?

May our sanctification lead us down a path toward the former kind of prayer. May we pray, “Lord, break my pride, humble my spirit, banish my fear, convict me of sin, guide me into true wisdom, and continue to renew me day by day.” And when we fall into selfish prayer (or when we fall to the ground as a result), let us be open to the Holy Spirit, prompting us to repent and to give ourselves anew to the God of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria,
     Pastor Zach
Wednesday, June 1, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Jesus, Tractor Beams, and Disintegration Rays

I’m back like John Travolta in ’96! I have been neglecting my poor blog lately, I know, but I’ll make up for it with a double-header today and tomorrow.

First up, a topic that was spawned from the Rick Warren/John Piper Interview. If you aren’t familiar with the background, John Piper last year invited Warren to speak at the Desiring God conference, and then a bunch of heresy-hunter types launched a veritable tweetgasm of charges and condemnations against Piper, 2nd-degree-separation-style.

I posted the video of the interview on my Facebook wall, encouraging hardcore critics of Rick Warren to watch it if they hadn’t. What followed was one of those meaty meta-conversations that make Facebook worthwhile, largely between me and my friends E. Stephen Burnett and Frank Turk (aside: Turk has an excellent article on the subject on TeamPyro today). Neither of these guys is a knee-jerk reactionary or a tiny-tent neo-gnostic Calvinist, which is what made it interesting.

We disagreed on the subject of whether Rev. Warren was being entirely forthcoming in the interview, but in the process, we began discussing a fascinating question, which I formed this way:


How close to Dort do you have to be before you’re allowed to carry out ministry unmolested by the Truly Reformed?

Turk answered, in true Turk fashion, “You cannot be too close to Dort. It’s like the Theological Starbase Batcave.” Yet the question remains: how far does one have to drift before the starbase begins a sequence of either tractor-beaming him in, or blowing him to smithereens?

Are we New Calvinists supposed to despise Billy Graham? (I sure don’t!) If so, is it just old, quasi-universalist Billy or young, Finneyistic altar-call Billy too? Do we tolerate and cooperate with Methodist pastors at the local level, but then launch missiles when a preacher with run-of-the-mill Arminian theology and methods gets “big enough” to have a national platform?

Do we trust any other traditions to maintain their own star bases and determine when their own ships have strayed too far?

This is probaly really optimistic, given the fact that I haven’t blogged in like a month, but...[waaait for it]...DISCUSS.

And check back tomorrow for reflections on last Sunday, when I passed out and fell to the chancel like a sack of potatoes halfway through my sermon.