On May 8 I wrote a blog titled: "What is a ‘Bible-Centered’ Church?" I reflected on this term as it was used on the sign of an independent non-denominational church in my area. I suggested that this saying was neither necessary nor helpful to Christians. My detractors suggest, in effect, that this phrase is a short-hand way of saying that this church affirms sola Scriptura as a core belief. I agree with that point and believe that I said so in the previous blog. I have no problem with speaking in short hand. We all do it. The problem I have with the term "Bible-believing" is that it is both unnecessary and unhelpful in the long run. It is unhelpful because it does not tell me what this church actually believes the Bible teaches. It is unhelpful because the important thing is not to believe the Bible but to preach Christ and the message of the gospel which is found in the Holy Scriptures.
I asked my wife, who is my favorite theologian, and she said, "You know, I have never passed a Mosque that said out front, ‘A Koran Centered Mosque.’ I think that says a lot. When our churches are faithful then we do not need slogans to tell the world what we are. The message that we are Christians and that a church meets here will be enough." That’s pretty good don’t you think?
When Catholics accuse Protestants of faith in a "paper pope" they are wrong, unless they are writing about people who hold to a simplistic and highly rationalistic view of Scripture. Everyone understands that to say you believe the Bible is never enough. Cults believe the Bible. Satan believes the Bible and can even quote it well. What is critical here is not believing the Bible but what you confess as necessary and essential to Christian faith, thus we have the early creeds of the Church and our more modern doctrinal statements which also come to the fore.
I further suggested that this short-hand term, "Bible-centered," came from the historical wars over the Bible within Protestantism since the 1870s. Personally, I am an evangelical with a very high view of the Bible. I do not believe it is merely a human book. It has human authors, for sure, but God the Holy Spirit "breathed out" (inspired) the Scriptures and what we now have is a faithful and authoritative record that points us to the true and living God and his son, Jesus Christ.
But being "Bible-centered" does not come from the Reformation, from the creeds and or from any moment in Church history until the wars between the liberals and the conservatives in the last century. While I am deeply opposed to liberal treatments of the Bible, treatments that undermine its normativeness for life and its authority for faith, the opposite of these liberal treatments is not "Bible-centered" Christianity, at least in the content this phrase generally carries with it historically. The opposite of non-biblical (unbiblical) Christianity is robust confessional Christianity that seeks Christ and worships the Triune God, not the Bible.
The problem here is quite obvious. We can trade a low view of the Bible for a simplistic, and seemingly high, conservative view that actually goes too far in the opposite direction in trying to correct the liberal error. This is what I think is generally done with the short-hand phrase "Bible-centered."
Several comments were posted on the earlier entry that suggested readers did not grasp what I was saying in the blog. Then a not-so-friendly correspondent wrote to tell me (in private) about how this blog proved that I had departed form the truth that I once embraced.
He began by telling me that my work of seven or eight years ago was quite good but that I have now denied that work by blogs like this one. He accused me of "ridiculing" positions that I no longer agree with. He goes so far as to suggest that my style and approach demonstrate that I do not "love" those I disagree with. He turns my comments about sectarianism back on me and says ACT 3 is a "breakaway group within Christianity that seeks to define itself as different and the only ones who have it right." Sadly, his definition of sectarianism is a straw man and his accusation amazes me. If you could charge me with anything it would be that I am quite sure that "[ACT 3] is [not] the only ones who have it right." Wow! I wonder if this reader, or those who might tend to agree with him, read me at all. I have been accused of a lot but almost never of claiming to "have it right."
This writer then adds: "I suspect that your fundamental heart aberration is that you have moved away from seeing the importance of Christ as ‘the truth’ in the biblical not ecumenical sense." It is always difficult to know how to respond to charges of "heart aberration." My heart is potentially deceitful and clearly a long way from where I want it to be. But again my writing, at least for nine-plus years, has been about the finality and sufficiently of Christ alone as the full and final revelation of God.
My critic then says that I am playing with words and language, thus not recognizing how I use code language in the same way that I criticize in this church sign. He calls the name of this ministry, ACT 3, a code word that is new and without referents in English. I wonder, has this writer heard of branding or of using acronyms to name anything? Missions have been doing this for about forty years now. ACT 3 is a great brand name for us, and it provides a very good acronym. It stands for something very clearly rooted in old and new forms of English. Some have made a great deal out of our name change from a few years ago. John MacArthur even made it as a point against me in his book, The Truth War, suggesting that our new name demonstrated a shift away from orthodoxy in some dangerous way. In reality, it was a huge shift towards historic and confessional orthodoxy.
Our newly revised constitution, worked out last week by our Board of Directors, says of ACT 3’s doctrinal stance:
We declare ourselves to be in agreement with the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as confessed in either the Eastern or Western tradition.
Those who understand what we mean by "advancing the Christian tradition in the third millennium" will readily see how we intend to do this and the doctrinal basis for our mission is as clearly stated in the above article of faith as know how to say it. This is "classical, ecumenical, ancient Christianity." If you wish to attack this well and good but please recognize that our ecumenism is not soft or non-doctrinal in any sense of the word. No relativist, another accusation that I hear now and then, would ever agree to affirm such creeds with their whole mind and heart.
The sad irony of some of those who write to tell me how I have departed from the Christian faith is that they often reveal their deeply felt hostility in quite emotive and unclear ways. This writer refers to my love of the Church and then throws in the phrase "your beloved Roman Catholic Church" just for good measure. This gets to the heart of the matter I think. This writer says he has 175 hours of postgraduate study, is eight years older than me, and then concludes that he is not "questioning [my] conversion." His bottom line was "to let you know that the ‘old’ John was a much more spiritual and intellectual blessing than the new one who had wandered into ‘strange places.’" (These strange places he cites are our working with mainline Protestants churches, as well as Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers.) He ends his letter with the salutation that he is my brother in Christ. I believe he is and I accept him as such. I do not know him personally or I would gladly sit down and talk to him if he were my friend.
Here is what I find so tragic in how so many like this brother have said to me, or about me, over the last ten years or so:
1. Most refuse to admit that they have adopted a stance of faith, a confessional position, or a human view of the Bible, that they hold deeply. Furthermore, anyone who differs with their stance is wrong! When this position is taken there is no basis for discussion, only correction and judgments about my motives and my heart.
2. Language is dynamic and communication is hard to establish when writers do not ask questions about a meaning that I intended but rather make assumptions about what I once said, now say, and then how I changed. I have changed, admit it freely and have even written about specific ways I have done this. But it seems difficult for many who attack these changes to grasp the actual meaning of my words. I do not think that I am that unclear but rather that I am saying things that are not well understood by some conservatives.
3. As for change, I do not understand why it is so wrong for a Christian to keep growing and continue to change how he grasps the gospel and the meaning of Scripture. This is a part of the real meaning of Scriptural authority and the doctrine of sola Scriptura. For too many people human traditions and human creeds have replaced the Bible (in reality) yet they argue that people who challenge them are the one’s who are denying the Bible.
4. The Reformation was never understood by serious Protestants as an end point. The last word is not that of the Reformers or their heirs. In fact, they would have been the very first to affirm this point. Why do their more conservative heirs of the 17th century creeds insist that they are the ones who keep the Church faithful to the ancient ways? The ancient ways included so much more than most evangelicals recognize. This recognition, by friends of mine like the late Robert Webber, has had an immense impact on my mind and heart. I believe in what Bob called "an ancient-future faith" and I believe in a reforming, and reformable, evangelicalism.
5. My own story has underscored for me one of the real problems in the church in America. We follow human leaders, human opinions and our own institutional structures without being open to God shining new light upon our paths from the dynamic Word. John Robinson, the Pilgrim, had it right when he said on the way to America: "There is new light to break forth from this Word for our lives." All rigorous biblical study, both popular and academic, is built on this very premise.
6. If you desire to make some people angry, or deeply disappointed with you, stand by them for a time and then move in ways they do not like or understand. You will find that this creates deep pain for everyone and this is no fun at all. I do not doubt that some of my friends are pained by my journey since they considered me a "safe teacher" who then went bad. But I find their unwillingness to listen and to dialog with me just as sad.
In conclusion, I am not suggesting that I am always right. Quite the opposite. I am actually admitting that I have been wrong and will likely be wrong again and again. I am encouraging a "new ecumenism" (see my earlier bog this month) that frightens some people who remain locked into old ways of thinking and talking to each other as Christians. This frightens both Protestants and Catholics alike but those who have read these blogs can readily see it also excites others on both sides of the divide. If you do not like my approach I do not understand why you would waste your time reading what I write. If you do then I am honored, deeply so. I do not like to read letters that tell me how I have failed the cause of Christ or disappointed someone who once thought I was a "good teacher." But I press on because this ministry is my mission, not my hobby.
Pray for me and the work of ACT 3 if you share these views. Pray for me that I never repay evil for evil or take an opportunity to fight back when attacked. I am deeply interested in ideas and plans for renewing the Church but I have no desire for a fight. When my words seem to invite a response this is not because I desire the fight but because I believe the ideas are worth writing and asking people to think about them and follow God’s leading as he directs them.