Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Quitting Church, by Julia Duin

Duin's book is one of a parade of books coming out during the past few years on how people in the tens of millions are storming out of the evangelical church. Unlike some other authors, Duin is a professing believer, but like many others, not attending a church during recent years.

Her book exemplifies the paradox Christian leaders face today. The complaints raised in interviews with ex-church people present a contradiction: On one hand, people claim they don't have time to make the commitment to attend. They're too busy. She cites research predicting that people are just going to get their spiritual food from the internet and form what Barna calls "a church of one." The world-committed consumer Christian is exemplified perfectly by this guy:

“I want to go back. But it takes such a lot of effort to go there after working all week and doing errands all Saturday. And if you do go, you want something back. You need your batteries charged. …Church is not like that anymore. You get no return for what you put into it.” Page 33
This quote shows two of the biggest problems we face today. First is the fact people are so committed to the world system that it takes all their energy, so there isn't much left for God. Next is the fact that this is consumer Christianity--the bottom line is always "what's in it for me?"

But God sends us into the church for what we can give, not for what we can get. Accommodation to the world and to consumer Christianity is a bottomless hole that will never satisfy anyone, and betrays God's instructions.

At the same time, they complain that church is impersonal, doesn't connect with their lives, and superficial. These quotes are typical:
One of the top reasons people give for their leaving church is loneliness: the feeling—especially in large congregations that no one knows or cares whether they are there. Page 50
Duin comments:
Many churches have become like supermarkets or gas stations: totally depersonalized arenas where most people no longer feel a responsibility to be hospitable to the person standing next to them. … As for those who drop out, no one notices. Page 52
So, the superficiality I wrote about earlier combines with accommodation to produce a situation that makes everyone sick. At the same time, she points out that "The people I talk with who have found true community and then must leave it, due to family or job reasons, pine for it for the rest of their lives." Page 50

So, again, we see two problems. One is that people just "must leave it" (which is to say in most cases the world system demands they leave so they can make more money). The other issue is that true community is so awesome it should be worth giving up other values to keep it.

When will we stop trying to out-soft each other to compete for worldly-minded members, and call people to the New Testament standard for real body life? Wouldn't it be better to have a smaller church that had real serving community than a bigger one that's so bland, superficial, and disengaged that people wonder why they're there?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Why Church in America Cannot Succeed

American culture contains constraints on churches that spell doom. Perhaps the most devastating result today is superficiality. In a superficial reading of the New Testament, leaders construct a church outwardly similar to the early church, but missing the key aspects that involve calling their people to sacrifice their time. The result is like a race car with all the lines and paint and tires but NO ENGINE! I've written on this problem before for my leadership class.

Superficiality - American church leaders tend to interpret the biblical picture of church planting in very superficial and non-demanding ways. They see leadership in a home church or small group as something that must not significantly interfere with typical bourgeois American middle-class living. American culture is placing increasingly heavy time demands on the modern family. Most American families are convinced they have to:

  • work long hours;
  • be available for any travel demands their careers may dictate;
  • belong to sports leagues;
  • keep their houses and yards immaculate;
  • clean and care for their late-model cars;
  • shop for the latest styles;
  • maintain their hobbies;
  • keep up with several weekly TV serials;
  • take their kids to every sports league and activity available at school;
If we add attendance at one or two church meetings per week, who has time to do any more?

When we compare American living to the early church, we see a striking contrast. In the early church they were "day by day" having meals together and meeting near the temple and from house to house. (Acts 2:46) This expression suggests Christian community took up a very large part of people's lives. Deep community like that described in the New Testament requires significant time investment into relationships. We can't drive up to the McDonald's window and demand community be handed through the window!

I have already argued that the "one another" passages in the New Testament become a dead letter apart from heavy time investment. Likewise, the training needed to become competent as Christian leaders takes a great deal of time investment. Becoming a man or woman of God ready to lead a flock for him will certainly interfere in a massive way with materialistic and entertainment pursuits that so dominate the schedules of adult Americans today. Like the rich young ruler, many American church members must turn away in sadness at the New Testament picture of radical Christian living.

The result of the divergence between the radical commitment of the New Testament church and today's convenient approach, where only our leftover minutes are devoted to spiritual growth and community is
superficiality. Church leaders try to patch together some form of community outwardly like that in the New Testament, but without the devotion and investment assumed in the New Testament. They feel they don't dare call on their people for their time (or, they realize whether they call on them for time doesn't matter, because they aren't going to get it anyway).

But simply introducing a structure involving home groups to a church is not going to produce New Testament-style fellowship, let alone a church-planting movement. Although such groups may superficially resemble New Testament house churches, the heart of the matter is missing—men and women of God sold out to each other and the non-Christian world in the love of Christ!

In superficial groups people who aren't really close at all try to act like they are close. Likewise, superficial groups may substitute a scripted approach to ministry for real ministry. Leaders are told what to say and do during a meeting and during personal encounters because they don't understand the Bible or other people well enough to respond to situations creatively and spontaneously.

People who are seeing each other in a personal setting for the only time that week, or even the only time in two weeks cannot be expected to know each other's needs or how to meet those needs. The demands of personal discipleship virtually always are too high for today's superficial approaches to home group ministry (unless personal discipleship is also redefined in superficial terms). But without effective, deep discipleship we see little prospect of multiplication, either of disciples or of home churches.

In my next post, we'll discuss Julia Duin's new book,
Quitting Church--yet another expose of the amazing stampede away from church today by tens of millions of evangelical believers. No matter how many of these exposes I read, I'm still amazed to see how little response there is in the evangelical church. I've decided to finally write a book on the church, but I'm feeling discouraged as to whether anyone will be willing to read it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is normative church involvement?

I've been studying the "one-another" passages with some students, and it makes quite a strong case that we are nowhere near biblical standards for time and effort devoted to the body of Christ. Consider this one:

Let the word of God richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another
This is a direct command given to all believers in the body of Christ. What would be necessary before this instruction could possibly be more than a dead letter?

To be sure, people would have to take the time to have the word richly dwell within them--so that would be a significant level of training. I doubt that any 5 or 10 week class can accomplish this goal. Probably several years of discipleship and learning are implied.

Then comes the part about teaching and admonishing one another. Would you take admonition from somebody who doesn't know you? How would that be possible? You would have to know someone relatively well to even be aware of what they need admonition for. This admonishing each other assumes that we know each other. And that knowledge would have to be way beyond the superficial level of relationships we see too often in the modern church, where everyone is too busy to spend time investing into relationships.

Let's remember, this passage isn't referring to the example of the early church, which we could possibly dismiss because our culture is different than theirs. This is a plain moral injunction that is not optional for Christians.

So, when I hear leaders arguing that "our people are just too busy for that," I can't accept that we are preaching in a way faithful to scripture. If our people are too busy to do what God calls on them to do, it's probably because they have too many idols in their lives. Their entertainment schedule, their aspirations to drive their kids to become super-kids, their fussing with their house, these are the things making them "too busy" to do what God says.

On every side, people are bemoaning the low state of the church today, but nobody seems willing to consider a change to the level of involvement seen in the New Testament--that's just too extreme for modern people. But we need to see that we are not just dismissing the time-bound example of the primitive church, but the New Testament itself when we say this.

If the "one-another" passages are too demanding to expect modern people to live them, then the New Testament way of life has lost all credibility in our world. If it's not too hard, then we should stop making excuses for our people and call them to the high standard envisioned in scripture.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Strange Story Proves False

A friend recently forwarded me a story about a megachurch pastor who sold the church's facilities and gave the money to missions. This story is going around various blogs--he got his from emergent. Here's part of it:

From the Associated Press –

Hiam Shatir may look like your average pastor, but he’s not acting like one. In a nation filled with expensive mega-church buildings popping up, Hiam instead chose to sell his mega-church, Crestview Community Church, and attempt to live into what he says is the call to “be the church.” And although many doubt him, Hiam just knew it was the right move to make.

“We just felt it was the right thing to do,” said Hiam, a businessman turned pastor, from his converted basement where he now administrates the church. “We couldn’t put our foot on the problem. People were sitting in the pews and not doing anything. They would come and sit and leave. And we began to ask if this is the Gospel.”

Crestview was known for its amazing stage productions, heartfelt contemporary worship, and relevant sermon topics often based on current events and pop culture. It quickly grew in numbers—adding two satellite “video campuses” and a recently launched online church campus—and was cited as one of the fastest growing churches in the nation. “Having someone validate what we were doing like that was really cool at first. We were really good at creating the ‘Wow’ factor that would have them wanting more,” Hiam says in reflection. “But I would go home exhausted and consistently wonder what difference we were making. I didn’t like that. And I just reached a point where I couldn’t do it anymore.”

In what many would consider a stunning move for a 8,000-member mega-church, Hiam and the board of elders chose to sell their recently developed $12 million dollar campus to a local technology company, which is now planning to convert the sanctuary into a manufacturing facility. “Selling the building was easier than we thought,” one elder stated.

So what made this ultra-successful pastor of one of the city’s largest suburban communities take such a radical step? Hiam shared that it was faith. “One day I walked into the main sanctuary, and it was empty. It was this huge building that we were paying a mortgage on and it was dark. I just had this sense of wonder if this is really what Jesus would do. Would he have created this building? And then when the economy took a downturn, paying the mortgage became our primary concern. But everyone was hurting. We had to let people go from their jobs. All of a sudden paying the bills became our primary motivation.”

Hiam shared that his messages became motivated by how much those people could give to the church rather than the Gospel. And then a moment of clarity hit me. “I was standing there on a Sunday and, right in the middle of my sermon, I just stopped. I looked around and just realized that, if we let go of this burden, everything would change. It was at that time I started to really question our intentions. At the same time, some really good people asked if we were living ‘missionally.’ Were we really releasing people to minister to their neighbor? I didn’t have a good answer to that question.”

Hiam began to doubt his own faith and purpose. “It was a dark time. More than once I told my wife I wanted to quit and go back to business,” Hiam said. “I felt like I was losing my soul. But the board of elders stuck with me, and they began to ask how we could begin to use money to solve real needs when we saw them. We suddenly realized we had the power to release people to be ‘missional.’”

Hiam wrestled with the decision over a six-month period. He knew that letting go of the building meant doing things in a completely different way. “The show would be gone, and, in some ways, that was hard for my ego to let go. It essentially meant trusting God to work in the people and not being everything to everybody. It was like we had new glasses on. We quickly realized that, before, a small majority of people were doing almost everything. They were burned out and completely exhausted. Now everyone has responsibility and purpose. So many people came to me, thanking me,” Hiam said.

When the building was sold, many felt lost in the transition. “We immediately lost about 30% of the people who attended our church,” Hiam shared. That number roughly translates to almost a thousand people. “Everyone called me and told me they just wanted a place to go on Sunday. They didn’t want to go out into the world. People’s primary concern was the loss of our children’s program.”

In talking with several families that had left, one woman expressed what has become a common refrain of ex-Crestview members, “Who will teach our children about Jesus? We just felt we needed a good children’s program and didn’t want to lose that.”

Life for Hiam and the church is now more complex but, he says, more rewarding. To accommodate the lack of facilities, Hiam took the radical step and converted his basement into an administration center. “We slimmed down everything and focused on following Jesus into mission. We asked what it would mean to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. We now meet once a month for a large gathering and meal, and put all of our focus on meeting in homes. It meant really getting serious about discipleship and putting our trust into the hands of our gifted leaders.”

My View
I wrote my buddy back and pointed out this story isn't as cool as some people think:
Well, I think you can see the problems - nothing for kids now, which is questionable. Also, that he had the church based on entertainment and doing nothing before the sale. So the real problem with this church wasn't that they owned a building, but that they had never built in biblical values for ministry and self-giving love, and had a big do-nothing congregation of takers.

His solution was to blow it up, which was, in my opinion, a negative and destructive solution. It wasn't his people's fault that they were apathetic, self-centered, and ignorant. That was his fault, and his board's. Instead of re-tooling the church and bringing in real Christian living, body life, and ministry mindedness, they just blew it up. Those people had given money for the facilities, and I can imagine them feeling messed over when he just got rid of it.

So, in a word, I'm not impressed. I think the whole story is one of poor leadership and lack of biblical convictions as to what the church should be. Then, realizing what they had was wrong, they didn't take responsibility for the mess and fix it (which would have been very difficult and taken years), they just went with a superficial solution of blaming the problem on the facility.
Only after wasting all this time did I realize the whole story never happened! At the bottom is a note that the story is just "satire" intended to stimulate thought. I wasn't happy to discover that, but it does highlight how one kind of superficial thinking (the entertainment-based model of megachurch) may be replaced with another kind of superficial thinking (kill all buildings, and we'll be fine). Building real biblical convictions re. the church is a lot more difficult than either of these foolish alternatives.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Romans 13 Real Love Part 1

We're experimenting with using youtube videos to enable people to invite friends by sending the link. We're hoping people might become curious enough to come out to a teaching more readily if they see some of it. Directly below the video on Youtube is the "share" button where people can quickly email the link to friends.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Early Church Growth

The period from the death of Christ until the end of the first century was the most fruitful in the history of the church. During these few decades, Christianity spread clear across the Roman Empire and beyond in to the Parthian empire, India, and North Africa. The best estimates put the number of Christians at the end of the first century at around 1 million. That’s an increase of 2000 times the number of Christians before Pentecost (perhaps 500). At this rate of growth, the entire world would have been converted within the next hundred years!

What is the significance of this phenomenal growth? Just this: Those who believe the early church is the best pattern for church life (like me) point to these results as an important part of their backing.

That's why I'm not happy with Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1996). Stark admits right at the beginning, "I am not a New Testament scholar and shall never be. Nor am I a historian..." (p. xii). His lack of expertise in these fields really shows in this book. (He's a sociologist). He lays out an entirely implausible estimate of only 7530 Christians by the end of the first century (p.7). This estimate is at variance with most scholarship. For instance, The World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that by A.D. 100 there were 1 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a population of 181 million. David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia. A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 3. Also see Kenneth Latourette: A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House, 1970) 85.

Latourette observes, “Never in the history of the race has this record ever quite been equaled. Never in so short a time has any other religious faith, or, for that matter, any other set of ideas, religious political, or economic, without the aid of physical force or of social or cultural prestige, achieved so commanding a position in such an important culture.” 112. Of course Islam and Communism spread fast, but both used military force.

I agree with the earlier scholars. Stark is wrong.

In the first place, we can account for 8000 Christians within the first few chapters of Acts, unless these narratives are completely discounted. Stark frankly dismisses Acts on page 5, speaking of the "many thousands" claimed by James in Acts 21 and the 5000 males mentioned in Acts 4. He says, "These are not statistics...figures in antiquity...were part of rhetorical exercises." (citing Robert Grant). His basis for rejecting Luke's numbers is the out-dated estimate by J. C. Russell that Jerusalem only had 10,000 inhabitants. Historians at the time had much higher numbers. Josephus says that at the siege of Jerusalem the population was 3,000,000, a figure nobody believes. Tacitus’ statement that it was 600,000 is nearer the truth, but still too high. Most historians today believe it was 35,000 to 50,000 people, mostly based on the extensive water supply systems excavated in recent decades. This figure could easily include thousands of Christians.

Stark absolutely rejects the historicity of Acts. He says, "I shall assume there were 1000 Christians in the year 40." (p. 5) He bases his estimate on a straight mathematical formula assuming 40% growth per decade for 300 years, ending in six million Christians by the time of Constantine. But this is not how Christianity grew. The growth was far better during the early years and slowed thereafter.

Stark supporter, Richard Carrier distorts his sources. He says of Pliny’s famous letter to Emperor Trajan, “…he [Pliny] says he knows nothing about how they [Christians] are to be punished or even charged (10.96.1-2). This is proof positive that Christians must have been extremely scarce--to the point of social invisibility.” This is amazingly distorted!

Here is what Pliny actually says:
“The case seemed to me to be a proper one for consultation, particularly because of the number of those who were accused [of being Christians]. For many of every age, every class, and of both sexes are being accused and will continue to be accused. Nor has this contagious superstition spread through the cities only, but also through the villages and the countryside. But I think it can be checked and put right. At any rate the temples, which had been well-nigh abandoned, are beginning to be frequented again; and the customary services, which had been neglected for a long time, are beginning to be resumed; fodder for the sacrificial animals, too, is beginning to find a sale again, for hitherto it was difficult to find anyone to buy it. From all this it is easy to judge what a multitude of people can be reclaimed, if an opportunity is granted them to renounce Christianity.”
So we see that, contrary to Carrier, the Christians were actually so numerous in his province that temples were empty, and they couldn’t sell sacrificial animals or fodder. The temples were being abandoned! This letter is referring to Bithynia, which got a late start with Christianity. Christians in Rome were way more numerous. Notice how Tacitus refers to the “huge multitude” of Christians captured during Nero’s persecution (Tacitus, Anal. XV. 44). And yet we're supposed to believe that only 8000 were won to Christianity in the first century? See Adolf Harnack's list of early references to numbers of Christians, which, although mostly second century, show they were very numerous well before that.

The lesson here is twofold. First, I've been surprised to hear evangelical leaders quoting Stark's conclusions without apparently realizing that he dismisses the historicity of Acts. Christian leaders should check out their sources more carefully and critically.

Second, the first century really was the best century, no matter how you want to measure it. That suggests we should take another look at simplicity in church life, at personal discipleship as the best way to develop leadership, at mobilization of the whole body for ministry, and other New Testament practices. We should also reject modern entertainment theories and market-driven theories for attracting growth. Trusting to the power of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit might still cause us to see the kind of power they did.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Is The Shack Emergent? Part 2

In Part 1, I commented on how The Shack removes God's justice and transcendence in a way similar to other books by emergent authors. There were other similarities as well.

Deprecating the Bible’s sufficiency and clarity:

Scriptural content was markedly missing in this book, and in fact, the picture is often at odds with the Bible. Young advances a low view of scripture:

In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. 63,64

Young’s own argument in this book, largely the product of his imagination, is a good argument for making sure our supposed encounters with God are moderated and governed by scripture. His characterization of scripture as limiting and incapable of being interpreted objectively matches other emergent arguments perfectly. Emergent authors use biblical points (like that God speaks to us today) to make points that the Bible never makes (that scripture limits God, or that it can’t be interpreted objectively).

Deprecating all authority:

Emergent authors are consistently repelled by authority of any kind. This theme comes across strong in The Shack.

Mack raised the question of authority within the godhead, and Jesus says “That sounds ghastly!” The Holy Spirit (Sarayu) explains: “We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command… What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Heirarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours. Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge.”

Mack points that that every institution from government to marriage is governed by authority.

“Such a waste!” said Papa… “Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.”

Mack points out that people have adapted to it.

Sarayu was quick to reply, “Don’t confuse adaptation for intention, or seduction for reality.” 122, 123

Then “Jesus picked up the conversation. ‘…If you had truly learned to regard each other’s concerns as significant as your own, there would be no need for hierarchy.” 124

“Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In Fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”

I’m not concerned with the argument about authority within the godhead. But this picture suggests all authority is really unnecessary and unenlightened. Confused and fallen humans have mistakenly opted for authority, but it’s “such a waste.” On the other hand, the God we read of in scripture is very authoritative. God sees authority as a good thing, and no problem for godly people. It is not confused humans, but God himself who establishes authority in the world (Rom. 13:1), the church (Heb. 13:17), and even the family (Eph. 5:22). According to the Bible, relationship is compatible with God’s authority, and should not be put over against it.

Deprecation of Jesus’ exclusivity

According to the Bible, Jesus is God's only provision for forgiveness. Those from other religions are called on to repent from their error and turn to receive Christ. Emergent authors skirt around the issue of universalism with ambiguous language designed to create the possibility of those from other religions being saved, without actually saying that. McLaren is the supreme master at this kind of language, but Young takes his place with similar language.

After Jesus points out that he, himself is not a Christian, he says,

“Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christians, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters into my Beloved.” 182

The use of the past tense, “were” makes this comment ambiguous, especially when connected with his denial that he wants to make them Christians. What is the point in this statement? Is it that believers come from these different backgrounds before they were believers, or that they’re fine within their other religions? Hard to say. But it matches the ambiguous statements by McLaren. After explaining that Muslims do what they do because they love God, he says:

I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace of other religions. If anything, I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul called "the law") by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up something beyond religion—a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children.’ It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God (A Generous Orthodoxy, pp. 266,277).

What does he mean by “beyond exclusion?” Again, it’s hard to say, but it creates the impression that Jesus’ claims are not exclusive. In other places, he has claimed that universalism is completely compatible with good theology.

So, in a word, while The Shack says more things right about God than flat wrong, the overall picture is very wrong. Omitting or deprecating God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and exclusivity leaves us with a caricature of God. This is the God humans would like to have—a big friendly teddy bear who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Bible believers will wonder who this god is.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Is The Shack Emergent?

At the heart of this book is a portrayal of God’s immanence. Young pictures God the Father, as a friendly “very large black woman” named “Papa,” Jesus as a jean-wearing guy who clumsily drops the bowl of sauce and says, “true that,” and the spirit as a partially transparent Asian girl. All three talk in a friendly, familiar way with Mack. The endearing, sometimes almost mushy love these three exhibit is appealing from the standpoint of our relationship with God, and I think this aspect of God is biblical, even if exaggerated in this story.

Unfortunately, God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and truthfulness are lost in this portrayal.

Lack of transcendence

I was uncomfortable with the notion of this large woman representing the Father who, according to scripture, “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” This is the same God who warned Moses that nobody can see God and live. Immanence is stressed in the Bible through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but the Father always stands for pure transcendence.

In the Bible, people usually fall on their face when confronted by God. Paul was blind for three days—and these encounters only involved the Son. In The Shack, the relatively irreverent Mac repeatedly throws caustic charges at God the Father:

“How can you say that with all the pain in this world, all the wars and disasters that destroy thousands?”

“But the cost!... It all sounds like the end justifies the means, that to get what you want you will go to any length, even if it costs the lives of billions of people.” 125

One’s credulity is stretched constantly by the plot anyway, but I found my credulity reaching the breaking point with this picture of a man challenging God the Father’s legitimacy and fairness to his face. No sufficient answer is given—Papa just gives smiling assurances that it all works out for love.

Lack of justice

The justice of God completely disappears in Young’s portrayal. And for this reason alone, I’m not surprised the book is popular with emergent thinkers. I think this is a major theme in emergent theology—they have virtually eliminated justice as an attribute of God. One emergent book after another heaps scorn on any portrayal of God as one who promises death to sinners.

This is why so many emergent thinkers have been questioning the penal substitution understanding of the cross of Christ. McLaren and Chalke are completely baffled as to why God would find it necessary to inflict pain on his son. They have both referred to this idea as “cosmic child abuse.” If God wants to forgive sin, they wonder, why doesn’t he just do it? That question makes sense for a human, or a God without the attribute of justice. The emergent god is way too nice to do anything like judging people in hell. An all-loving God unconcerned with righteousness and justice would never do something mean like that.

In The Shack, Mack asks papa whether she is especially fond of all or are there those who she is not especially fond of. She answers,

Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”

Mack, was interested. “Do you ever get mad at any of them?”

“Sho ‘nuf! What parent doesn’t? There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger—especially for me—is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not.” 119

Mack is incredulous. Responding to his amazement, papa says,

“I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” 120

In fairness, God doesn’t say sin is okay in this book, but the absence of justice is a glaring flaw. Apparently, we don’t need to be adopted through conversion to become a child of God. All humans are his children, and all entitled to his love as sons and daughters.

Other emergent themes emerge as well. We'll cover these in the next post.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Wicker's Fall of the Evangelical Nation Part 3

Christine Wicker's book details numerous serious problems facing the evangelical church today, as explained in earlier posts.
Read Part 1
Read Part 2

One of the most ominous facts she refers to comes from Josh McDowell. Wicker quotes McDowell from his book, The Last Christian Generation, saying. "It has been estimated that between 69 and 94 percent of churched youth are leaving the traditional church after high school, and very few are returning. Furthermore, only 33 percent of churched youth have said that the church will pla a part in their lives when they leave home."

This is about as bad as news can get. The church is losing its voice with young people more than any others. Why should we be concerned about that? Look at this chart:

As you can see, most people become Christians during their high school and college years. If the church is losing its voice with these people it means we can expect the anemia of recent years to deepen rapidly. This is perhaps the most critical problem the church faces today--how will we develop effective outreach to students, and how can we form communities that they consider cool, spiritual, and nourishing?

Even though Xenos is know as a leader in this area, we too feel the tension. The reputation of Christians are at an all time low with students, especially in college. You can check out our work with 750 university students here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Assessing The Fall of the Evangelical Nation Part 2

In the last post, we saw that Wicker's book raises troubling questions about the continuing viability of the evangelical church in America.

Read Part 1

She's not the only authority arguing the same case. Professor Alvin Reid shows that at least 41% of Americans are hard-core unchurched (have no clear understanding of the gospel, and have had little or no contact with a Bible teaching church), larger than the number of nominal Christians (30%) or active, participating Christians (29%). Alvin Reid, Radically Unchurched: Who they are and how to reach them, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2002) 21. He adds that "Of the 350,000 churches in the U. S… less than 1 percent is growing by conversion growth.” 23 and “Over the past decade, membership in Protestant churches dropped 9.5 percent, while the U.S. population grew 11 percent.” 24 He thinks, "Most evangelistic methods used today are ineffective in making disciples.” 24

Wicker points out that while many believe evangelical are the fastest growing faith group in America, the truth is, "Nonbelievers are the fastest-growing faith group in America in numbers and percentage. From 1990 to 2001, which was the last good count, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million. Their proportion of the population grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent. That means there are more than twice as many people who claim no religion as there are participating evangelicals" when measured by Barna's stricter method. 53

Her claim is confirmed by the American Religious Identification Survey: "In 2001, more than 29.4 million Americans said they had no religion - more than double the number in 1990, and more than Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians all added up."

She shows that the loss of influence is worst among the young. Using Southern Baptist studies, because they keep good records and make them public, she points out that, "In the eighteen-to-thirty-four age group, Southern Baptist baptisms fell 40 percent from one hundred thousand in 1980 to sixty thousand in 2005.”63 Even worse, "The great majority of people being baptized in evangelical churches are already baptized Christians and children." 93

Whatever growth evangelicalism has enjoyed in recent years is often illusory. Wicker cites a case where "Gallup found 42 percent of Americans calling themselves born again or evangelical in 2003. In 2005, the pollster asked three questions to identify born-agains and evangelicals: 1. Born again experience? 3. Witness for Christ? 3. Bible as literal Word of God? The percentage dropped to 19 percent." 211

In a hilarious, but all too true section, Wicker gives one of the main reasons for the decline: "As we've seen, many churches are training for evangelism. They're preaching evangelism, They're pressuring for evangelism. And members are responding. They're praying. They repenting. They're feeling guilty, cowardly, and shamed before Jesus... There's only one thing they're not doing. They're not evangelizing, and nobody, not even Jesus, seems able to make them do it. Only half of all born-again adults do any witnessing at all in a year, and what they do they don't feel good about. Studies show that spreading the Gospel is one of the areas in which Christians ...'have the least interest in self-improvement.'" 135

As I note in my book on discipleship, guilt trips are completely ineffective at motivating evangelism. Groups that reach out eagerly and effectively do so because they think it's fun. Disciples who are properly motivated learn to care about people, learn to make friends with non-Christians, and learn the joy of seeing others come to Christ.

The more churchy a group gets, the fewer non-Christians they see visiting, and the fewer have any interest in returning. Groups that think accommodation (either to western avarice or postmodernism) works fail to see people meet Christ. Groups where people are ashamed of the gospel or the authority of scripture see few come to Christ. The more political a group gets, the fewer converts they see. The more legalistic and narrow groups get, the more they focus on unimportant rules, the fewer converts they see.

Unfortunately these features describe far too many evangelical churches today.

In our last section, we'll look at one of the most fatal points about the evangelical church in America: their loss of impact on students.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Face the Facts: Assessing Wicker's Fall of the Evangelical Nation, Part 1

As an evangelical leader myself, reading Wicker's book was not an exercise in edification. But it is a cold dose of reality, and although I don't believe all her claims, I think the thrust of what she says must be heard. She begins with her thesis:

Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on culture. All are down and dropping. It’s no secret. Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories, insiders are anguishing about their great losses, fearing what the future holds. Nobody knows what to do about it. A lot of people can’t believe it. No wonder. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly. ix
Could this be true? She lays out studies showing the problem is real, mostly from Christian, evangelical sources--Gordon Conwell, Barna, Josh McDowell, Southern Baptist Mission Board, and from some secular, but neutral sources like Pew and Gallup. She, herself, is not neutral. She is a lapsed Baptist who lost her faith in college, like 90% of evangelical children do, according to McDowell. She tries, but fails to conceal her glee over the situation. But I liked the fact that this was coming from a non-evangelical. Do we dare to read what the world thinks of us?

As a non-believer, Wicker is more interested in the issues raised by the Christian right. She portrays the common perception that evangelical churches are growing in America as sort of a plot, or scam, designed to give the right-wing political people more power at election time. I found this part uninteresting and somewhat implausible.

But while I questioned her interpretations at many points, I did not find her main thesis implausible. Our own studies show the same thing. For instance, "The evidence comes from Southern Baptists’ own studies. Only 7 percent of members who’ve been in a Southern Baptist church five years of less are true converts.” 62 We have done studies that show the same thing, and Baptists are generally better than other evangelical churches. In some of our studies of famous churches, the percent that report they met Christ in that church is as low as 3 percent.

She rolls out numerous studies in an interesting way, interspersed with stories of people from both favorable and hostile perspective. She concludes, "The truth behind all these numbers is that evangelicals are not converting and cannot convert non-Christian Americans, especially native-born white people, in significant numbers." 64 I believe that is as true as any statement in the book.

In a larger view she says, "A small and declining group of people has been portrayed as tremendously powerful and growing so rapidly that they might take over the country—when in fact that number of converts among this group is down and dropping. They are rarely able to convert and , middle-class American. Their share of the population is not 25 percent, but at most 7 percent of the country and falling. All these numbers come from the churches themselves." 67

What about the reports that 30 or even 40% of Americans are evangelicals? She de-bunks that myth using work again from evangelical sources, including Barna who made that figure popular. His real test for actual believers of a simple list of 9 basic truths shows that the real number of those who believe the Bible at a level that could be considered evangelical is only 7% of the population. Even this crew is suspect. The rest of the so-called 'born-again' Christians in America don't even know what it means. Wicker observes, "The other larger group [the rest of the 40%] comprised evangelicals who were born again but didn’t accept the great majority of the most basic religious tenets that evangelicals are “supposed” to live by. 86 I've known this for years. There's no way most of the people Barna refers to as born-again are true Christians.

One of the biggest questions in my mind as a read this book, just released on April 29, 2008, is whether the evangelical church will be willing to read it. I don't think so. I predict this book, which should be read by all evangelicals, is destined for the remainder table. Evangelicals have consistently shown no willingness to read anything that suggests their current path might be wrong.

Next: We'll drill down into some of Wicker's data for the facts.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

My Reaction to Francis Collins' Language of God Part 6

Collins' theory of "Biologos"

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Collins' version of theistic evolution should be called deistic evolution. He only allows God a role at the very beginning, setting up the machine at the time of the big bang. Even the arrival of abstract intelligence, morality, and the desire for God were apparently natural developments.19 God's role is limited to foreknowing that evolution would take this path.20 His position is even more deistic than Darwin's own position, because Darwin said: "Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived upon this earth have descended from one primordial form into which life was first breathed by the Creator."21 Collins won't even allow for God launching the first living cells.

Collins' analysis of why people resist this deistic theory of origins centers on two specious reasons—1) that people don't like theism associated with evolution, and 2) that they prefer controversy to harmony. I can't think of anyone who resists deism for these reasons.

The real reason Christians resist deism is biblical authority and sound exegesis. Here, Collins reveals his method again, in a way consistent with his earlier chapters: Genesis 1 and 2 are figurative. Adam and Eve were not the only humans, because of Cain's wife. Therefore they are probably just a representative story of how people don't obey God. C.S. Lewis and the Pope agree that the passages should not be taken literally or historically. The lyrical character puts them in the same category as Job and Jonah, which do not carry a "historical ring."22

As noted earlier, these verdicts fly in the face of Jesus' clear teaching that "God said" the things recorded in Gen 2 to Adam. Jesus likened his resurrection to Jonah's expulsion by the fish. According to this reasoning, if the Jonah story was mythical, Jesus' resurrection could be mythical also. Paul teaches that just as sin entered through one man, justification entered through one man. Again, if Adam's fall was mythical, wouldn't this mean that Jesus' death and resurrection could be the same? How did the fallen nature pass to other humans? Clearly the Adam and Eve story is impossible if humans evolved in a transitional community of organisms probably comprising thousands of members, as Collins assumes. I hope we all see that viewing humans as the product of evolution alone means the rejection of a literal Adam and Eve. It also offers no adequate explanation for a spiritual nature that would even survive death.

Collins' view of scripture is completely unacceptable.

On page 83, Collins gives us two choices where Genesis interpretation is concerned: hyper-literal young earth hermeneutics, and non-historical poetic license. His coverage in this section demonstrates no understanding of other interpretive positions. Throughout this section, he shows little depth of understanding either of the interpretive issues in Genesis or of the theological issues raised by his low view of scripture.

Collins stands close enough to biblical faith to be very appealing, especially because of his preeminence in the scientific community. But while learning from his advanced scholarship in genetics, people could also easily buy into his poorly informed views on scripture.

For us, the determining limits to which theories may be accepted should be biblical exegesis. I believe we have no reason to declare which theory or combination is the correct one, only which theories are possible within a biblical framework.

19 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 201. Although he allows that these defy explanation through evolution, he still resists attributing them to God, and maintains that no intervention by God was necessary. He reaffirms this when he describes moral law and desire to know God as gradual, natural developments that could have happened in reptiles if things had gone differently.

20. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 205, 207

21. Cited in Gleason Archer, Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 195.

22. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 209.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Reaction to Collins' Language of God Part 5

Read earlier comments in
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Collins on Intelligent Design

Collins' assumption that scientists would never ignore or marginalize a new view, just because it's based on theistic assumptions seems quite naïve to me. Why would scientists be any different than other humans? While they may like formulating new theories, adopting a position that would lead to their own marginalization is not likely.

Collins disqualifies ID as science because "A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification." But "ID's proposal of the intervention of supernatural forces to account for complex multi-component biological entities is a scientific dead end. Outside of the development of a time machine, verification of the ID theory seems profoundly unlikely."13 I think this criticism fails for more than one reason.

First, macroevolution (as I have defined it above) suffers the same criticism as ID. It prescribes no future approach for experimental verification. Experimental verification of natural selection or of genetic mutation is not the same as verification for macroevolution. Faith in macroevolution rests entirely on interpretation of existing data and has never been validated experimentally, or observed.

Second, while we would have to go back in a time machine to verify ID, we would also need one to validate macroevolution. Collins fails to see that believing in a process that has immense gaps in the fossil record, and no explanation for how it began in the first place is no better than believing in a far more plausible explanation, such as intervention by a designer.

I thought his call for ID to give a mechanism for how the intelligence gets into the design was unrealistic.14 This would be nothing but speculation at best. Any number of possibilities could be suggested, but these would probably only be used to ridicule the position. ID is primarily a critique of a pure Darwinian explanation for nature. Collins seems to imply that ID is in the same category as young earthers, but most are in fact Darwinists within limits. The material I have seen is arguing that Darwin's theory is inadequate to explain all transitions. Most do not deny Darwinian principles across the board.

His arguments that current design in humans is imperfect and flawed, thus making it unlikely they come from God, are very familiar arguments found in enlightenment writings – Darwin, Hume, and others advanced these same arguments, and they have been answered satisfactorily.15 I was surprised to see a theist using these well-known atheistic arguments.

I thought his rejection of Behe's flagellum argument was unconvincing and rhetorically loaded. He throws in qualifiers like "presumably" such and so could have happened, and admits "we are far from filling in the whole picture (if we ever can)," but on these bases, he concludes "Recent research has fundamentally undercut this [ID] position."16 The research he mentions did nothing more than suggest a highly speculative possibility without observable backing [that flagella could have been borrowed toxin injectors somehow converted to a completely different function]. How does this fundamentally undercut anything? I thought it highly questionable that an organelle used to inject toxin into other bacteria would spontaneously begin to spin as a means of motility, and thereafter be reproduced for that purpose. I'm sure Behe et al. would point out that this transition would have to happen for all parts of the flagellum in a very short time in order to bestow any enhanced survivability. I can't believe Collins thinks the matter is closed based on this speculation.

I have never felt that the flagellum and related arguments were the most persuasive part of ID (their work on inorganic evolution is far more convincing, since the mechanisms of mutation and selection are not available as an explanation). But I did not feel that mere resemblance to amino acid sequences in a somewhat similar organelle that had a completely different function could be called "fundamentally undercutting" the flagellum argument.

He also characterizes irreducible complexity as the foundation for ID, and that is inaccurate. That is only one argument use by the group, and in my mind, it is one of the least convincing. The recent discovery that bacteria and viruses can adopt and assimilate loose strands of inter-cellular DNA into their own DNA (not mentioned by Collins) could raise problems for this theory as well.17

He completely fails to deal with their much more substantial work in inorganic evolution. This is a critical shortcoming in his critique. He also fails to deal with Dembski's analysis of what constitutes evidence of design in nature.

Collins includes a theological critique centering again on the 'God of the gaps' complaint dealt with earlier, and a specious claim that ID pictures an incompetent God who needs to intervene periodically to "correct" his shortcomings in previous creation. Neither of these was convincing.
The reasons for progressive creation would not need to be correcting errors or deficiencies. Anyone who has added to his garden during successive years understands why the creative work done last year may be supplemented without any suggestion that the previous work was mistaken. The pleasure of creating is reason enough for a creative being to act. For all we know, progressive acts of creation may have been appropriate because conditions were developing on the planet during long intervals that made further advances possible. There could be other reasons. This critique is an interpretation loaded with negative assumptions not based on any evidence. It is also possible that natural selection and mutation are incapable of developing beyond certain inherent limits.

Collins is completely negative about ID. He predicts it is a ship headed for the bottom of the ocean.18 I thought he gave no adequate basis for this caustic assessment. Young people in our church have supplied me with evidence that in recent months, weblogs and other groups discussing science and Christianity have suddenly shifted from favoring ID to declaring it now "disproven," that "it sucks," and "is stupid." I think Collins' very popular book is having a dramatic but unwarranted impact.

Next time: Collins' "Biologos" theory

13. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 187.

14. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 187, 188,

15. Gleason Archer, Survey of Old Testament Introduction, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974) on Genesis.

16. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 192.

17. Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases In a World Out of Balance, (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

18. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 195.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Reaction to Collins' Languag of God Part 4

Collins' work on biblical exegesis

Read Part 1
Read Part 2
Read Part 3

Collins says, "The concern about not accepting liberal interpretations of biblical texts is understandable."8 But he also says, "…parts of the Bible, such as the first few chapters of Genesis, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and the Psalms, have a more lyrical and allegorical flavor, and do not seem to carry the marks of pure historical narrative."9 He adds, "to most other interpreters throughout history, until Darwin put believers on the defensive, the first chapters of Genesis had much more the feel of a morality play than an eyewitness report on the evening news."10 His view here only reflects Roman Catholic allegorizing during the medieval period, which was not only applied to these passages but to most historical narrative in the Bible. Allegorical hermeneutics were rejected well before Darwin by evangelical interpreters, and for reasons different than that assumed by Collins.11

These statements clearly signal that Collins has a view of scripture deemed unacceptable to the vast majority of evangelical scholarship and contrary to our own statement of faith. During the 1980's hundreds of the top scholars in the evangelical world came together to clarify what evangelical views on biblical authority should entail. They developed the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics," which is the clearest formulation of the evangelical view in this area. Notice these articales that are violated by Collins' statements (key phrases that I think are denied are in bold):

Article VI.

WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts. (Collins thinks they are still true even though they make claims that were wrong.)

Article XIII.

WE AFFIRM that awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study.

WE DENY that generic categories which negate historicity may rightly be imposed on biblical narratives which present themselves as factual. (The early chapters of Genesis present themselves as factual, but Collins says they are symbolic.)

Article XV.

WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.

WE DENY the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support. (such as allegory, which Collins likes.)

Article XX.

WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations.

WE DENY that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.

Article XXII.

WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.

WE DENY that the teachings of Genesis 1-11 are mythical and that scientific hypotheses about earth history or the origin of humanity may be invoked to overthrow what Scripture teaches about creation.
Also note these statements from the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:"
(Collins directly rejected this position.)

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.
(Collins directly rejected this position.)

Article XII.

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

[Their point here is that we begin with exegesis and determine the limits allowed. THEN we go to science as it stands today to see what is more or less likely within those limits. The wrong approach would be to reach conclusions via science, and then make scripture fit that conclusion—which is exactly the approach Collins takes when he dismisses Gen 1-11 as history. – Dennis]

Article XVI.

We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church's faith throughout its history.

We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.
(Collins directly rejected this position.)

Article XVIII.

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads or relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims of authorship.
(Collins did exactly this in his argument.)

I think Collins' approach to scripture violates all of these statements, and is completely unacceptable for Bible believers. Such a view could prove a stumbling block to the weak and unlearned.

Jesus and Paul affirmed that the early chapters of Genesis were historical and factual. Remember that our information on Adam and Eve, and the fall of the human race are contained in these "allegorical" and "morality play" chapters. This is why evangelicals believe these chapters are historical, not a defensive reaction to Darwin.

Since Collins' method emanates from a base that is not constrained by a high view of scripture, his method is faulty. Therefore, we must be very careful about accepting his views based on that method.

Contrast his view of scripture with his view of science:

"Science is progressive and self-correcting: no significantly erroneous conclusions or false hypotheses can be sustained for long, as newer observations will ultimately knock down incorrect constructs."12

I think Collins' faith in science is extreme and unwarranted. Critics of scientism like Kuhn have demonstrated multiple cases where exactly what Collins thinks could never happen has happened (see his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Collins' faith in science contrasts strongly with his lack of confidence in scripture, and calls further in to question his underlying assumptions and methods.

Next time: Collins on Intelligent Design

8. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 175.

9. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 175.

10. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 175.

11. See this author and Gary DeLashmutt's explanation in "Hermeneutical Systems."

12. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 58.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Reaction to Francis Collins' Language or God Part 3

We have considered Francis Collins' views on the 'God of the gaps' argument and his views on the fossil record in
Part 1
Part 2
Now we consider his work on:

Interpreting molecular similarities

Collins shows compelling evidence for similarity between human and mouse DNA, even in non-functional sections. His conclusion is that such similarity denotes common ancestry. But while similarity could denote a common ancestor, it could also denote a common maker. Is it reasonable to assume that God would start from scratch every time he introduced a new order of organisms (assuming this happened)? Or would he begin with existing forms, and alter them in meaningful ways to produce the new order? I don't know how we could answer these questions. Clearly, if the notion that God periodically introduced new forms is true, the evidence suggests that he used existing forms as templates from which to build the new forms. This could explain the data just as well as evolution.

As an analogy, consider the way programmers produce a new computer program. They normally do not begin from scratch, but use helpful strings of code from previous programs they have written for various functions. Likewise, a Bible teacher will commonly include illustrations and arguments he has used in earlier teachings when constructing a new one. These similarities don't imply that the new program or teaching sprang from the former, but that the creator of both used existing material combined with new material to produce the new creations.

Collins admits that these similarities are only found "over substantial stretches" and "in some instances."6 He also concedes that, "one might argue that the order of genes is critical in order for their function to occur properly, and therefore a designer might have maintained that order in multiple acts of special creation."7 But he feels that, "there is no evidence from current understanding of molecular biology that this restriction would need to apply over such substantial chromosomal distances." In other words, the similarity of sequence is longer than necessary for the functions involved. But this observation doesn't rule out the use of even relatively long similar chains by a designer. It only shows that such borrowing would not be necessary as far as we know.

He concludes: "this kind of recent genome data thus presents and overwhelming challenge to those who hold to the idea that all species were created ex nihilo." I think this conclusion is warranted. But it may be a bit of a straw-man as well. Only extreme creationists continue to hold that all species were specially created. I fail to see why believers would argue this extreme position. However, the genome data do not present an overwhelming challenge to the view that God engaged in multiple creative acts at various points, combined with evolution.

Next time: Collins' work on biblical exegesis.

6. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 134.

7. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 134, 135.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Reaction to Collins' Language of God, Part 2

Read Part 1
In part 1, I argued that Francis Collins' warnings against any "God of the gaps" argument are overdone. If God has ever acted in supernatural ways, there would be gaps. Also, secular science has it's own imaginary phenomena to explain gaps. This time we examine his work on the fossil record.

Macroevolution and the fossil record

Collins' rejection of the distinction between macro and microevolution (p. 132) is based on an overly narrow definition of microevolution. I agree that Christians often err here, by claiming that no new species have appeared through evolution. The evidence is good that many species are the result of evolution. I have always held that in the expression, "after its own kind," (Gen. 1) the word 'kind' is not defined. It could mean species, genus, family, or even phyla or something larger. I also agree with Collins that the idea of macroevolution has no clear definition and is therefore a somewhat vague concept. But I think it is still useful for declaring that evolution has some limits in what it can explain. "Reproducing after its own kind" has to mean something. The rules of exegesis say you can't just ignore language that doesn't fit your theory. If the amoeba gave rise to humans, then what does "reproducing after its own kind" mean? The phrase seems to be saying there were limits within which organisms reproduce. If not this, what does it mean?


Collins never adequately addresses the larger question of jumps in the fossil record. Even the discovery of some possible transitional forms (where formerly there were none) cannot be reasonably extrapolated to mean that all missing transitions will eventually be found, or that they once existed, but were never preserved in the fossil record. This is a faith position without observable backing. It fills the gaps with imagined fossils that have never actually been seen. It also fails to speak to the stability of species in the fossil record, where most species appear relatively suddenly, stay very stable throughout their history (except for minor changes like size) and then often disappear. This picture does not fit Darwinian assumptions. Think of the famous case of the horse. The changes seen in the fossil record are basically a change in size, which is qualitatively different than the kind of changes one would need to see in order to demonstrate macro-evolution.

Collins' proposition (that transitions may have occurred during periods when fossils were not deposited) means that such suspensions in fossil deposition would have to happen worldwide even in very different sedimentary strata, deposited in different ways. For instance, some are deposited by oceans, some by rivers, and some fossils come from animals trapped in tar pits or amber, to name a few. These would all have to suspend fossil making for many millions of years at the same time in order to explain why the discontinuous layers we have are really continuous and relatively constant in rate of change, as predicted by Darwin. Why would this happen? I think this is a huge leap of faith, and even atheist paleontologists like Gould use this same data to back up the need for punctuated equilibrium (which is leap of faith in itself).

The last research I did on this about three years ago indicated that only a handful of debatable links have been found, and that thousands of gaps remain as striking as ever. Robert Carroll observes recently in Nature, "What is missing are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types." (Carroll, Robert L., "Towards a new evolutionary synthesis," in Trends in Evolution and Ecology 15(1):27-32, 2000, p. 27.) Even in cases where possible transition fossils have been discovered, they are usually far distant from either the parent line, or the line they are supposed to explain, and authorities disagree on whether many of them are really transitional forms at all.

His efforts to argue that fossils are rare and the record extremely fragmentary is unconvincing. At every geological period, millions and even billions of fossils survive. The problem (not acknowledged or discussed by Collins, except in the case of the Cambrian explosion) is that strata containing abundant fossil remains from entire new orders lie immediately adjacent to strata containing none of these organisms or anything similar. This widespread phenomenon remains a major problem for Darwinian theorists. Collins' general statements about the difficulty of making fossils did nothing to answer this problem. Of course only a minority of organisms are ever preserved in fossil form. But as anyone who has studied fossils knows, this minority still usually numbers in the millions for most categories.

I believe his claim that the former view (that there were huge gaps all over the place) has now been refuted, is wrong. Authorities writing recently still argue that most significant gaps remain. The sudden appearance of new phyla, genera, and families is remarkable today as it has been. The only place I have seen such sweeping claims that the problems with fossils are not in the past is on atheist websites with low credibility.

Collins does not demonstrate careful study of the fossil record (geology and paleontology are not his area of expertise), and this is a serious weakness in his argument. Fossils remain the only truly objective, empirical data we have for what actually happened. Mathematical extrapolations from genetics does not stand, in my view, at the same level of credibility as the actual history as seen in the fossil record.

I admit that an explanation could conceivably be found one day for the discontinuities in the fossil record. But I believe the evidence today still conforms to a picture of periodic dramatic changes in plant and animal populations, and these are used to date sedimentary strata, because other strata are missing these forms. This picture is not easily explained by pure natural selection, and could indeed represent creative episodes where God intervened.

Read Part 1

Next time: Collins' work on interpreting DNA similarities and his biblical exegesis.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Reaction to The Language of God by Francis Collins Part 1

The Language of God is an interesting read from one of the world's most prestigious scientists. He recounts his own conversion from agnosticism to theism, and goes on to examine how a personal creator accords with the findings of science. This book could be very helpful to non-believers when questioning their own agnosticism or atheism. I found it less useful as a guide to a Christian view of origins.

Collins' Objections to 'God of the Gaps' Arguments

Collins says, "Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps."1 This is an oft-repeated point in other's work, and has a lot of history behind it. However, there are gaps which should be filled in our understanding by God. Every time a miracle happens, we have something we don't understand. And God is the explanation. Every act of God in history is a gap that, properly understood, is filled with God. While it's easy to err and attribute to God's intervention things that have natural causes, this only means we should be careful. It does not mean that gaps in scientific knowledge may indeed be answered best by divine intervention.

Collins is eager to avoid giving God as the reason unexplainable things in natural history. But what is the difference between seeing God in the unbridgeable gap between simple organic compounds and living cells on one hand (which Collins resists), and between the big bang and whatever happened beforehand on the other (which Collins accepts)? Using a God of the gaps argument seems to be okay in some situations, but the rules are unclear.
Referring to inorganic evolution and why it would be unwise to assume God is responsible, he says,

There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge."2

He seems to believe that science will soon explain inorganic evolution also, so we shouldn't attribute it to God. I thought this position was way too cautious.

Discussing the Cambrian explosion, he says,

While attempts have been made by certain theists to argue that the Cambrian explosion is evidence of the intervention of some supernatural force, a careful examination of the facts does not seem to warrant this. This is another "God of the gaps" argument, and once again believers would be unwise to hang their faith upon such a hypothesis."3

I see no argument or evidence given here to back this rejection of divine intervention at or around the Cambrian explosion. Whether the theistic position is a 'gaps argument' begs the question and is ad hominem. Ad hominem means "against the man" where instead of refuting one's evidence, you point out he is making a similar argument to a discredited other (like Hitler), or in this case, earlier mistaken Christians. It's an invalid form of argument, because the fact that someone else messed up when using a similar argument means nothing about whether the present case is messed up.

The fact is that our observable data show huge discontinuities in the fossil record appearing in short time spans. Of course we can speculate about possible explanations that would still allow for the slow transitions required by Darwinian Theory, but such speculations have no backing in observable data, and cannot be considered science. This is particularly hard to accept when layers of sediment (like limestone) from the same ocean show change happening between one layer and another. Why would the ocean stop depositing sediment and then start again? In cases where the ocean dried up for a period and re-filled (which has happened numerous times with shallow inland seas) you can see clear signs that this is what happened.

The only argument I could see by Collins was that "The so-called Cambrian explosion might, for example, reflect a change in conditions that allowed fossilization of a large number of species that had actually been in existence for millions of years,"4 How is this explanation for the gap any different or any better than the hypothesis that God intervened at this point in history? I agree with him that we cannot be dogmatic on such ancient issues. I also agree that people shouldn't "hang their faith" on the assumption that God intervened here. But the theistic hypothesis seems far more plausible to me than some worldwide change in fossil formation capability. An appeal to some change in the way fossils form, which formerly allowed microscopic fossils, but afterward allowed larger, complex fossils seems rather desperate to me. Normally larger organisms form fossils most easily. He gives no clear description of how this change would happen, or why.

Atheists argue that people have erroneously used the 'God of the gaps' argument before, and therefore we should never use it again. Similarly, some theologians argue that people have erroneously claimed that the end times are at hand based on so-called 'signs,' so we should never again argue that case. Both of these are fallacious arguments.

Just because God was wrongly blamed for being the cause of certain gaps in understanding (like what causes disease) doesn't mean there are no gaps that should be attributed to God. This would lead to a completely naturalistic worldview. Miracles would be impossible. All apparent interventions by God would have to be left in abeyance in the belief that someday science will explain it.

Collins doesn't deny the reality of miracles, and in fact says he believes in them. But his method makes it necessary to prove something is a miracle before believing in it. Many miracles can't be proven, but are real. I'm not commenting on Collins' beliefs here, I'm commenting on his methodology.

Likewise, just because people argued falsely that the end times were at hand based on signs that were misinterpreted doesn't mean that the end times won't be signaled by signs correctly interpreted, as Jesus clearly teaches in the parable of the fig tree (Mat. 24:32, 33). Such ad hominem arguments would be analogous to saying that since evolution was the basis for National Socialism and communism; we should never appeal to evolution for any explanations.
In a word, the fact that people have used a line of reasoning poorly in the past doesn't mean the line of reasoning is discredited—only their improper use of it. Collins himself has suggested at least one gap that should be attributed to God (the big bang), and grudgingly admits that another (inorganic evolution) could be explained by God. As biblical theists, we believe there are many gaps that should be explained by God's action in history.

Next time: Collins on the fossil record.

1 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, (New York: Free Press, 2006), 93.
2 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 93.
3 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 95.
4 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 94, 95.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Implications of Divine Election of Leaders

Last time, I argued that God chooses spiritual leaders. If we accept that premise, what are the implications for ministry today?


The implications of this perspective on leadership are profound. If we conclude that God chooses leaders, our goal becomes cooperatiaon with the choice of God in assuring that only divinely appointed leaders are recognized. Therefore:

We should avoid appointing someone as a leader on any basis other than our belief that God has chosen him or her for that role. This rules out leadership based on seniority, on level of scholarship, degrees earned, prestige in the community, personal friendship, etc.
We should exercise caution when giving, or providing ministry to a young Christian. We should provide opportunity to build ministry, but we would not want to install a young worker into a well-developed ministry he or she did not actually build. Otherwise, we might simulate from the human side what God should provide from his side. The result could be that a person appears to be chosen by God, when in fact we have installed the person in their position artificially. Installing a person into a developed ministry will often result in the "turtle on a fence post" syndrome (i.e. the turtle didn't put himself there, someone else placed him there). We may harm both the church and the individual when we interfere with God's election in this way. It makes more sense to offer young workers opportunities to follow up new people and form discipleship relationships than to offer them ready-made leadership roles like existing cell groups or home groups. An exception to this would be cases where a person has proven leadership in one venue, and we call on them to move to a new ministry. This was apparently what Barnabas did when he summoned Paul from Tarsus to Antioch.
We should be very reluctant to remove ministry from a young Christian worker. Such removal could result in a subsequent failure to recognize God's choice of the person for leadership because humans have disrupted his or her ministry every time it begins to flourish. There are important exceptions to this rule of thumb warranted in Scripture. The main exception would be the case where the young worker has disqualified him or herself by recent, serious, and objective sin. Scripture teaches the importance of moral character for Christian workers in passages like the requirements for deacons, (which, if violated could result in disqualification). Although young workers are not deacons, the principle would still apply to some extent, that anyone who serves the Lord needs to live up to minimal standards of Christian character. The the Bible provides examples of leaders removed from leadership due to sin or false teaching (1 Tim:1:20; 3 John 9,10). But these passages indicate that such removal should involve serious sin, not minor slip-ups. We would assume the same thing with young workers--they should not be removed from ministry because of minor slip-ups. All the passages warning against hypocrisy also imply that those trying to lead others, should be doing what they preach to a large extent. (Luke 12:1) "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."
Whether someone is removed from leadership for disciplinary reasons or removes himself for other reasons, this could be an indication that God has not elected the person for leadership at this time. For this reason, we would not restore one who has been removed from leadership back to leadership unless the signs of divine election are again evident. This usually means the person has returned to the beginning stages of ministry and re-built their following. An exception to this might be situations where leaders have temporarily stepped down due to situations judged to be either outside their control, or unimportant.
Only leaders whose ministry is blessed by God are considered for advancement to higher levels of ministry. If we err in putting in leaders whom God has not chosen for that role, we do better to make such errors at lower levels of leadership rather than higher levels.
The notion that leaders are chosen by God strongly implies favoring indigenous leadership to imported leadership. Leaders imported from another group cannot be realistically affirmed by the local members and leaders, unless they know those in the former location relatively well. Such imported leaders usually have to depend on external credentials or hearsay for their legitimacy. Although we see the example of Barnabas bringing Paul in from Tarsus to Antioch, Barnabas had personal knowledge of Paul and his ability. Paul had also planted more than one church in Syria and Cilicia before Barnabas came for him. (Acts. 15:36,41)

Even with these principles, the business of determining God's calling remains subjective. We are often reduced to guesswork when naming leaders, because there are so many variables involved. We usually are faced with compromise in at least some areas with every leader we recognize. Pray often that God will clearly indicate his choices for leadership.