Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sexual Revolution at Princeton?

Kairos Journal reports on a "New Sexual Revolution at Princeton," being spearheaded by the Anscombe Society. This student-led movement takes its name from G. E. M. (Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret) Anscombe, at twentieth century Christian philosophe at Cambridge "who argued on philosophical grounds that 'there just is no such thing as a casual, non-significant, sexual act' because sex is inextricably tied to 'the transmission of human life.'"

Does this mean that the libertine bloom is off the ivy?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

25 Years of Grace and Faithfulness

This Sunday Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida will celebrate its 25th anniversary. We will rejoice over a quarter-century of grace and faithfulness--God's, not ours. Every church that lasts is a story of God's grace. Often I marvel that the kingdom of God makes any advance in the world when you consider all of the opposition, trials and shortcomings that characterize every church's story. It is a testimony to the power and faithfulness of the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ.

As you can imagine I have had lots of time over the last several months reflecting on the last two decades. Our family is preparing a video tribute for the church that will be presented at our special gathering this Sunday. The last several weeks have been spent reviewing old photos, videos and documents in the process. We have laughed and cried and at times been brought to quiet reverence at the various memories. Many good friends and faithful servants have left the land of the dying and crossed over to the land of the living in the last quarter of a century here. A few have walked away from the faith. Far more have been born into the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

I have served Grace for 22 and 1/2 of her 25 years. When I arrived in Cape Coral I was 28 years old and Donna and I had only an infant and a toddler. Today we have 6 kids and our youngest is 10. In many ways the story of Grace is the story our family, which is appropriate, because the people of Grace Baptist really are our extended family. All of the Tom Ascols have sort of grown up here.

The church was not in very good shape when I arrived and the same could be said for me. I like to tell people it was a perfect match: Grace was a church nobody wanted and I was a pastor nobody wanted. We were meant for each other! How I actually got here is an interesting story of God's providence (the telling of which I will spare you), but how I have been able to stay here is a story of divine grace and faithfulness.

The key leader in the church tried to get the members to rescind my call while I was traveling from Texas to Florida. He intended to meet me at the house we had purchased with the news that I was no longer their pastor. By God's grace, enough members were unwilling to go along with him that he could not pull off his scheme. While I was allowed to begin my ministry, it is not too much to say that the honeymoon ended before the reception began.

In the first ten years Grace moved from a season of division and instability into an era of doctrinal clarity and conviction. Though some detractors predicted that it would die, by God's grace we were not only kept alive but enabled to study and adopt the New Hampshire Statement of Faith and 1689 Confession for our doctrinal standards. After much study and some difficult examples of its neglect, we became committed to the practice of church discipline. We adopted a church government that recognizes both elders and deacons as officers who serve in a congregational system. We also joined the local Southern Baptist Association and began giving to the Cooperative Program.

The next ten years were marked by deepening maturity and being awakened to the missionary heart of our God. We learned the painful lesson that being reformed in doctrine is not enough. If Christ is not central then doctrinal precision can be as deadly as doctrinal indifference. While we had never denied the preeminence of Christ we had not focused as intensely as we needed to on the Gospel-centeredness of all ministry and life. God taught us during these years that Christians need the Gospel as much as unbelievers. It is a lesson we are still learning today and from which we are determined never to depart.

We sent our first two missionary families to unreached people groups (Tajiks and Guarani) through the IMB during these years, and became one of the first "Global Priority" churches in the convention. During this time we began to increase the percentage of our giving to missions each year. We just recently increased it to 19% of all undesignated receipts.

It was also during those years that we began our Spanish speaking ministry. After one abysmal false start down this road, we rethought our philosophy and approach and began the painstaking process of trying to establish a church that is comprised of people with two different heart-languages. We are "one church that meets in two languages." We made a commitment that we would have one membership, not two, and that we would not simply sponsor a "Spanish speaking mission." State denominational servants told us we were crazy and that it would not work. It was slow going for the first 5 years, but a solid foundation was laid for the kind of ministry that Grace now has.

The last 5 years have been marked by peculiar, visible blessings from God. Over the years we have seen the Lord build His church among us. Most of the time that work has been slow and not immediately perceptible. Like roots going deep in order to sustain the future growth of a tree, the Lord strengthened us spiritually, sometimes through trials and periods of testing. In the last 5 years, however, we have seen His work rapidly expand in very evident ways. Despite hurricanes and being severely affected by the slump in the housing market, we are currently experiencing some of the very best days in our brief history. Our Hispanic congregation has experienced unprecendented growth numerically and doctrinally. We sent our 3rd family to the mission field through the IMB and they are seeing Muslims come to Christ with some regularity. We have rejoiced over the planting of a church among the Tajik people in Uzbekistan. And we have other members contemplating the prospect that God may be calling them to go to unreached peoples of the world.

Through it all, God's grace and faithfulness have been obvious. Grace Baptist Church has become the most precious body of people in all the world to me. No pastor could ever want a more gracious, loving people. It has been a singular privilege to serve with this culturally, racially, ethnically and linguisticaly diverse body of believers. God has given us friends all over the world. Some of the finest pastors, theologians and missionaries of our day have ministered God's Word to us.

I look forward to the future with hope and joy because I know that all of the blessings we have thus far enjoyed have come not from our own doing, but from the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He has been faithful and will remain so to the end.

As God brings us to mind this Sunday, pray for our gathering. If you are in Southwest Florida this weekend, come worship with us. We will be meeting at Ida Baker High School so that we can all meet and worship together in two languages. We start at 10 AM and lunch is provided. Among the many highlights of the day will be the introduction and singing of "Upon this Rock," a song written by Ken Puls especially for this occasion. It is outstanding! If you know you are coming, drop me a note or leave me a comment to let me know.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

WSJ on church discipline

Alexandra Alter wrote an article on church discipline that was published in the January 18, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal. It is ominously entitled, "Banned From Church." While I applaud the WSJ's effort to examine the "growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline" it is regretable that the article wasn't written by someone with more understanding of the subject at hand.

For example, Alter describes church discipline as "an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent." Doesn't that sound just like what Jesus prescribes in Matthew 18:15-18? Ms. Alter says that this passage teaches that "unrepentant sinners must be shunned."

Given this gross misunderstanding of the subject it comes as no surprise that the examples that are cited in the story tend to so extreme that most pastors I know who teach and lead their churches to practice discipline would not want to be identified with them. For example, Alter writes about a pastor who dialed 911 on two different occasions to have a 71 year old excommunicated woman arrested for sitting in a church service (the audio of the first 911 call is even embedded in the online text). As reported, this was not a biblically defensible action.

When a person is removed from the membership of a church in keeping with our Lord's teaching in Matthew 18, he or she is not to be "shunned." Neither should they be forbidden to sit under the public preaching of the gospel. They need the gospel and, while we cannot treat them as members any longer, we should welcome them the same way we would a "Gentile or tax collector" (in other words, an unbeliever). We recently had a member who was excommunicated several years ago show up for a worship service. I was glad he was there and told him so. I prayed for him during the worship, that God would capture his heart with the gospel. This is far from the caricature that is portrayed in the WSJ.

The article sites Southern Baptist pastors Jeff Noblitt of First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Al Jackson of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama as men who lead their churches to practice discipline. They are not quoted at length and, I suspect, were far too sane in the comments to be judged worthy of extensive coverage.

There is a difference in church discipline and "pastor discipline." I have known of a few cases where overly zealous pastors tried to remove problem members in the name of church discipline. But, because their congregations had not been adequately taught and were not fully on board with the process, it really wasn't "church" discipline at all.

One of the first things a faithful pastor must do when he finds that a church has neglected the practice of corrective church discipline is teach. He must carefully explain passages like the one cited above and 1 Corinthians 5. Then he must teach some more. And then some more. He must lead the membership to see and embrace what the Bible says about the integrity of a church's identity and testimony as the body of Christ. Only after a congregatoin has been adequately taught can they be expected to properly carry out the practice of church discipline.

Where this goal is intentionally pursued with patience and love, the practice often can be reinstituted in a healthy, God-honoring way. This is one of the greatest needs in American evangelical churches in our day. While caricatures must be avoided and abusive practices must be rejected, the engagement of loving oversight and accountability breeds vitality and unity in a church.

Anyone who reads only the WSJ article and does not investigate what the Bible actually says about this issue will never know this. But those who care enough to find out what God actually says in His Word, and not merely what others think He has said, will discover that this kind of relational devotion to one another is one of the great blessings of the church.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Christianity Today: TULIP Blooming in the SBC

In a rather poor article in Christianity Today Ken Walker takes note of the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC. Ten years ago, that might have been news. Today it is, at best, old news.

There are some good quotes by Al Mohler and Timothy George and a not-so-good-one by Frank Page. What is disappointing is the Walker's obvious misunderstanding of the issues involved, as evidenced by this paragraph:
Mohler said a deepening interest in theology is driving younger Southern Baptists to explore Reformed thinking, and he dismisses the fear of some that the budding Calvinist wing will tilt the SBC back toward its 19th-century anti-missionary movement.
Southern Baptists fought against the "anti-missionary" mindset--both the theological and the ecclesiological kind--that pocketed American Baptist life in the 19th century. To suggest otherwise is at best irresponsible journalism.

Timmy Brister has written a very cogent response in which he addresses Page's comment that,
The totality of history shows the vast majority of Baptists have not been [Calvinists], so why go back to the founders?...I think we need to go back to the Bible.

Reforming academic regalia at Southwestern Seminary

I would not have believed it had I not seen ample evidence to convince me that this report is true. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary celebrated its centenniel convocation yesterday with the faculty wearing black felt cowboy hats instead of the more traditional toppers usually associated with such occasions.

My incredulity stems not from any sense of loyalty to academic tradition or attire. Rather, this just seems too silly for a serious academic institution. It sounds like a stunt.

But, it's not a stunt, according to Dr. Malcolm Yarnell. He contributed an apologia for the new, western look among the faculty by writing (I am not making this up),
Now, honestly, what is more relevant and dignified in a Texas free church setting: A cowboy’s hat, reflecting our ministry to and identification with our people? Or, a priest’s biretta, indicating we are ontologically superior to our people? Is it not part of our Baptist Reformation heritage to alter mere trappings as we see fit? We are neither in Roman orders nor under Roman custom. We are Southern Baptists, and as free churchmen, we are free to reform our customs and habits as we deem fit.
Certainly, Baptists are free to deviate from traditional regalia in their academic or any other settings. But leaving off for the moment what this new look says to the many Native-Americans in the great state of Texas, I cannot help but wonder why they stopped at the hat, if the desire is genuinely to break with "Roman orders" and "Roman customs?" Why not lose the robes as well?

Spurgeon's sentiment (in the voice of John Plowman) is shared by many a Baptist:

An ape is ne'er so like an ape
As when he wears a popish cape.

My friend, Wyman Richardson, who alerted me to this development, has written a response that reflects my own attitude. It is worth reading. He closes his thoughts with this summary:
Let's just call this what it is: "Don't Mess With Texas" run amuck in what used to be the world's largest Southern Baptist seminary.

Not that I really care...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Southern Baptist Evangelists lament the recovery of Calvinism

Baptist Press reports the gathering of 15 "prominent" evangelists in Jackson. The meeting was initiated by Jerrry Drace to discuss issues that they judge vital to their ministries. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, the growing recovery of our denomination's doctrinal heritage is one of their great concerns. The other is the seeker-sensitive approach to ministry.

I have classified some of the reported comments of participants into 4 categories.

1. Concerns that every Southern Baptist Calvinist I know would share, assuming the scenario that is described is accurate (Calvinists in the SBC have been so long and are so often caricatured that this caveat is understandably necessary).
Drace told the group he currently is working with some young pastors who are "so leaning in this morphed Calvinism that they almost laugh at evangelism. It's almost to the extent that they believe they don't have to do it. So [Calvinism] gives them an excuse not to do evangelism."
Anyone professing Christian who laughs--or "almost laughs"--at evangelism should be sharply rebuked. I hope brother Drake will do exacdly that.
Sammy Tippit of San Antonio, Texas, asked if some of the seeker-friendly approach could be attributed to a backlash against the type of manipulation people see in televangelists.
I think he is partially correct. More and more serious pastors and churches are growing weary of seeing people emotionally jerked around by well-intentioned but biblically shallow preachers. Such manipulation is not limited to televangelists.

2. Concerns that leave me wondering exactly how Calvinism got implicated.
Wayne Bristow of Edmond, Okla. added that he's distressed about having to "tiptoe" around terminology for fear someone will misunderstand or take his comments another direction. For example, he said he has always told people who have asked that he can preach and give an invitation with authority and confidence because he believes in the sovereignty of God.

"When I preach I know the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of people in that congregation -– arresting them, convicting them, convincing them and drawing them to Christ," Bristow said. "If I didn't believe that, I have no authority; I have no confidence. All I did would be in my own strength, and I would be forced immediately into a ministry of manipulation. But we live in a time now where [Calvinism] has come so much to the forefront that when you say something like that then … you've got to be labeled."
I am not certain where the Bible teaches that one's authority is based on being certain that when he preaches the Spirit is arresting, convicting, convincing and drawing the hearers to Christ, but that is beside the point (to say nothing of a "ministry of manipulation"). Is the concern that Calvinists will question that kind of thinking or label it? I just don't understand the concern.

3. Concerns that sound like the greatest problem with the seeker-sensitive "system" is that it prevents vocational evangelists like those at the meeting from being invited to preach in churches that employ it.
"When the pastor preaches on Sunday morning in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and tennis shoes, do you think he's going to bring in this fire-breathing evangelist who wears a tie and black suit and have him stand up there and tell people that they are going to hell?" Michael Gott of Keller, Texas, asked rhetorically.

"Do you think he's going to change that whole user-friendly approach to have somebody like you or me tell people that they must recognize there's something wrong, and what's wrong must be changed, and the only one to change it is Jesus Christ.
...
We're not even within the system," Gott said. "It's not like [leaders] are rejecting evangelists, but the system has eliminated the role of the vocational evangelist. That is going to have to be changed by seminaries, by denominational leaders who challenge churches to use an evangelist.
These comments speak for themselves.

4. Concerns that puzzle me in the way that they are expressed:
"Southern Baptists neglected serious Christian education from the early 1960s, and that's when all the trouble started. From discipleship training we went to the amorphous youth groups, whose only real good was to keep kids happy until they graduated from high school and graduated from church. Now, you have a generation [of college students] who have come along and want something deeper and they have latched onto Calvinism" [emphasis added].

Poe said the "greatest missionary" for Calvinism in the local church is John Piper, a Reformed Baptist theologian, preacher and author who currently serves as pastor for preaching and vision of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Two of his most popular books are "Desiring God" and "Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions."

"He's effective because he's so passionate," Poe said. "He holds huge, stadium-type events that are rip-roaring. There's nobody else doing anything like that so he becomes [Calvinism's] expositor. But John Piper's version of Calvinism is not something John Calvin would espouse, or even that Charles Spurgeon [British reformed Baptist preacher] would espouse.

"Calvinism has an appeal because it tends to have an answer for everything -– you can explain everything [by saying] that God predestined it."
Is the rise of Calvinism really "trouble?" No one questions John Piper's passion. But to attribute his effectiveness to that one quality is naive at best. There are lots of passionate arminian preachers. I dare say that most if not all of those gathered for this meeting would be classified such. Could it be that Piper's effectiveness stems from his Christ-centeredness and biblical fidelity? To declare that Calvin and Spurgeon would not espouse what Piper teaches (on the doctrines of grace) is debatable, though not really that important.

To claim that Calvinism's appeal is its tendency to "have an answer for everything" borders on hubris. I don't know what type of "Calvinism" Poe has been observing but whatever it is, it is foreign to me. Furthermore, and more troublesome, if his assessment is accurate, then it is an indictment on the thousands and thousands of young leaders who are coming to embrace the doctrines of grace, suggesting that their motivation stems from wanting "to have an answer for everything" rather than wanting to know and believe whatever God has revealed in His Word.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

John Owen on pastoral fervency

I am in Boca Raton this week teaching a J-term for Reformed Theological Seminary and have had no time to post. I hope to get back on schedule next week.

A friend pointed me to this quote John Owen on a pastor's inner life and attitude. It is rich, and convicting. It comes from his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, (vol. 5, 195).
I say, without this earnest and fervent desire after the profiting and salvation of our people, we shall have a cold and ineffectual ministry among them. Neither is it our sedulity or earnestness in preaching that will relieve us, if that be absent. And this desire proceeds from three principles; and that which pretends thereto, and doth not so, is but an image and counterfeit of it. And these are, (1.) Zeal for the glory of God in Christ; (2.) Real compassion for the souls of men; (3.) An especial conscientious regard unto our duty and office, with respect unto its nature, trust, end, and reward. These are the principles that both kindle and supply fuel unto those fervent desires for the good of our people which oil the wheels of all other duties, and speed them in their course.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

John Newton on zeal blended with benevolence and humility

Too often zeal for truth is used as a license to be harsh, condescending or downright mean. Where such professed zeal is wedded to such attitudes you can be sure that something more than love for truth is motivating the one who is advocating it. Anyone who uses commitment to his Lord's doctrines as an excuse to violate his Lord's commandments reveals that he holds neither gospel nor law as fervently as he thinks.

The same Master who teaches us the doctrines of divine election ("All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out, John 6:37) and spiritual inability ("No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day" John 6:44) also commands us to love the brethren ("A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another," John 13:34) and even our enemies ("But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Matthew 5:44). And Paul explains that love is "patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude ... it is not irritable or resentful" (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).

What kind of devotion is it that excuses sin in the name of truth? Uninformed and immature at best and blind and deluded at worst.

John Newton understood this very well and made the following observation on the combination of humility and benevolence that is found in true Christian zeal. His words are worth just as needed today as they were in the 18th century.
The Christian, especially he who is advanced and established in the life of faith, has a fervent zeal for God, for the honor of His name, His law, His gospel. The honest warmth which he feels, when such a law is broken, such a Gospel is despised, and when the great and glorious name of the Lord his God is profaned, would, by the occasion of his infirmities, often degenerate into anger or contempt towards those who oppose themselves, if he was under the zeal only. But his zeal is blended with benevolence and humility: it is softened by a consciousness of his own frailty and fallibility. He is aware, that his knowledge is very limited in itself, and very faint in its efficacy; that his attainments are weak and few, compared with his deficiencies; that his gratitude is very disproportionate to his obligations, and his obedience unspeakably short of conformity to his prescribed rule; that he has nothing but what he has received, and has received but what, in a greater or less degree, he has misapplied and misimproved. He is, therefore, a debtor to the mercy of God, and lives upon His multiplied forgiveness. And he makes the gracious conduct of the Lord towards himself a pattern for his own conduct towards his fellow creatures. He cannot boast, nor is he forward to censure. He considers himself, lest he also be tempted; and thus he learns tenderness and compassion to others and to bear patiently with those mistakes, prejudices, and prepossessions in them, which once belonged to his own creature and from which, as yet, he is but imperfectly freed. But then, the same considerations which inspire him with meekness and gentleness towards those who oppress the truth, strengthen his regard for the truth itself, and his conviction of its importance. For the sake of peace, which he loves and cultivates, he accommodates himself, as far as he lawfully can, to the weakness and misapprehensions of those who mean well; though he is thereby exposed to the censure of bigots of all parties, who deem him flexible and wavering, like a reed shaken with the wind. But there are other points nearly connected with the honor of God, and essential to the life of faith, which are the foundations of his hope, and the sources of joy. For his firm attachment to these, he is content to be treated as a bigot himself. For here he is immoveable as an iron pillar; nor can either the fear of the favour of man prevail on him to give place, no not for an hour. Here his judgment is fixed; and he expresses it in simple and unequivocal language, so as not to leave either friends or enemies in suspense, concerning the side which he has chosen not the cause which is nearest to his heart.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Jeffress to nominate Mohler for SBC President

Confirming months of speculation, the SBC Texan announces that Robert Jeffress, pastor of FBC Dallas, will nominate Al Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, for president of the SBC in Indianaopolis on June 10. Read the story here.