Friday, February 19, 2010

Sloppy Statistics

This article highlights in Evangelicalism at large a problem that I'm seeing and commenting on in Fundamentalism in particular. There is more desire to prove a point than to be scrupulous about being accurate. Bradley Wright comments often on sloppy statistics used by (and about) Christians as well.

Here's another, more recent article on the subject.

I see this all over the place, and it's become even easier in the world of email forwards. It goes back beyond emails, though, and runs far deeper. Back in college, we'd have well-known missions speakers come and address us, and they'd often give us numbers and statistics. (Some things never change.)

On the one hand, people proclaimed that all the missionaries are coming off the field - hardly any go back for a second term, and the long-term ones are all getting old, coming home, and dying. They would give numbers and statistics depicting the decline of world-wide missions.

Yet on the other hand, I heard statistical complaints that it's incredibly difficult to get support for new missionaries, in part because there are so many competing for the missions support out there!

Unless missions support is drastically decreasing across the country (and I have seen no statistics suggesting that), both statements can't be true. Either we have fewer missionaries going out, which would mean less competition among the remaining ones for the available support, or we have more missionaries going out, which means foreign missions is increasing, not decreasing. Yet those assertions are both often supported with statistics, and ironically, sometimes it seems that they're both made by the same people!

I'm not saying this to bash missiologists, much less missionaries. That's just one of many examples where I've seen statistics applied in sloppy ways. Really, it's nowhere near as bad among Christians in general I know as it is among the politically-involved in general that I know. (Though some make the case that Christians tend to be among the worst at abusing statistics.)

But then, Christians ought not be the world warmed over - we should be something radically different. Being like the world but not quite as bad... this tells me we've gotten very sloppy about truth in general, and about statistics in particular.

Now, I don't think this comes from an evil desire to deceive. I think the thought process runs something like, "My position on this issue is correct, and what I want people to do about it is right. Therefore, any statistic that supports my position MUST be true, since my position is correct. People who take my position must be honest, because we are on the side of right - so why should I waste time verifying statistics when instead I could be proclaiming the truth they support and urging people to the action they endorse?"

If an action is according to Scripture (such as going into all the world and preaching the gospel), then feel free to urge people toward it. If the Bible says something, you don't need statistics to prove it - the Bible itself is truth. But if you're going to use statistics, please do what you can to make sure they're reliable. Otherwise, you undermine your reliability in every area.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is There a T-Shirt for This?

It would appear that I am a heretic, by the judgment of a local fellowship. If I don't change my doctrine (or at least the terms I've used to express it), they've decided to separate from me. It's possible that I can work through the situation to prevent the action, since the practical differences between us are truly minute, but those are tricky shoals to navigate.

It's kinda strange to be looking at separation from this side of things. I just want to know if there's a t-shirt or something for the experience, like people get for riding wild roller coasters or surviving hurricanes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When Opportunity Knocks, Just Shoot Through the Door

I've got a whole queue of post drafts lined up, but opportunity came knocking to take me for a stroll. Well, okay, it kicked down the door and demanded that I come along. Hiking this path with opportunity has kept me too busy to finish any of the other posts yet.

Specifically, this is the opportunity to practice what I preached about dealing with friendly fire. Shortly after I posted that, the call came in from a friend in a local preacher's fellowship I've been attending. The word is doing the rounds among the leadership that I preach something heretical, and he wanted to talk to me about it.

Ironically, the folk who seem to have a problem with what I preach pretty much jumped straight to some of the tactics typically used in returning fire. Handouts misrepresenting what I believe and refuting that misrepresentation are going about, what I actually said is being freely ignored (despite the actual sermon they're worried about being openly available to anyone who wants it), and people are going to others to get them on their side for the battle instead of coming to me personally with their concerns.

Now I've got to make sure I respond in the Spirit, not in the flesh. There is such a temptation to lash out in anger at the wrongs that have been done me, to stomp off and refuse to fellowship with men who would hurt me so casually, to bash those who tolerate and participate in these actions rather than rebuking them, to broadcast the names and crimes of people who claim to serve God but disobey Him, and to start playing the political game by contacting the ones who are most likely to agree with me and take my side and lining them up to support me.

There is also the temptation to come as close as I can to knuckling under without actually compromising my convictions, to bury the hurt and ignore the sin for the sake of peace, because I don't want any trouble, I don't want any conflict, and I don't like being criticized. Some of the people involved in this are men I know, love, respect, and am grateful toward. However, what some of these people have done is plainly wrong.

So I've been spending big blocks of time in thought and prayer for days, trying to make sure I don't act in anger, hurt, or fear, but rather speak the truth in love with wisdom. I simply want to do what God wants. I want to obey His Word. I want to be the wise man who can receive rebuke where it is warranted and thank the one who delivered it. I don't want to fall into the trap of turning to blast away at those who should be on my side. I also don't want to turn a blind eye to sin among the leaders of God's people.

I have met with one man, the only one who has thus far come to me personally about the whole of the situation (kudos to him, by the way, for that at least.) I've told him I'll meet with another, the one who began to spread the situation throughout the fellowship, after I pull some things together. After that, I can only hope and pray that the Lord will give clear guidance and that I'll have the courage, patience, strength, and humility to do what He wants.

Whatever course I take, the road is going to be rough. That's always true when you walk out the door with opportunity. The practicing can be so much harder than the preaching.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fighting Friendly Fire

Have you come under attack lately from someone who should be on your side?

What are you supposed to do when someone who shows as a friendly on your IFF starts blasting away at you? It can happen in all walks of life, whether it's your ministry coming under attack from another, a spouse stabbing you in the back with hurtful words, or a co-worker cutting you down to lift themselves up.

Fortunately, Fundamentalists have had decades to develop responses to these situations, and they've really honed a few techniques to a fighting edge, especially when applied at the ministry level. In situations where we are criticized or attacked by someone else who claims to be a blood-bought follower of the Lamb, many Fundamentalists set a blazing example of technique that leads to triumph. Perhaps you who were inclined to patiently endure the suffering for the cause of Christ can learn something from the Fundamentalist reactions I've observed and noted lately.

So without further ado (doesn't it sound very Shakespearean and educated to use that word?), here is the classic, time-honored, tried and true Fundamentalist approach to dealing with friendly fire.

1. Return fire! After all, isn't friendly fire as much fire as enemy fire? So when someone attacks us, does it really matter all that much what they say their motives are, whether there's something to what they say, or whether they've usually agreed with you in the past? If you're on the Lord's side, and they're criticizing you, then that makes it pretty apparent which side they're on, doesn't it? The moment their first round lands near your position, you'd better be whirling to blast at them. All this talk of longsuffering and patient continuance in well-doing might be fine for lily-livered New Evangelicals, but Fundamentalists are men of action. No matter what flag someone is flying, you can't let them do any more damage to you and your troops by getting off additional shots before you return fire. If it helps, you can psyche yourself up for your counterattack by thinking, "If they thought fighting Satan was bad, wait'll they get a dose of the firepower from somebody filled with the Spirit!"

2. Involve allies immediately. The moment you get wind of a possible dispute or disagreement, make sure you're lining up all the allies you can. A good way to do this is to send a mailing to every person or preacher you know explaining things from your side and taking those counter-attacking shots. Assessing your opponent's position yourself rather than letting him speak for himself can be a huge help in recruiting people to your side. (A subtle way to do this is to use lots of carefully-selected quotes involving many of those little elliptical dots.) At all costs, you should avoid going in person and in private to speak to the other person humbly about the disagreement between you. You've only got one real ally when you do that, and clearly, you want the numbers on your side if there's going to be a fight. That great spiritual leader Napolean Bonaparte informed us that God fights on the side with the better artillery, and fortunately, Fundamentalists have paid a great deal of heed to the attitude and techniques of that wise man.

2. Remember that the cause of Christ isn't as important as making sure everyone knows you're right on this issue. It's only okay for young people to go to college at an institution that agrees to the fourth decimal place with your understanding of the preservation of Scripture. Whatever the issue of contention is, that completely overshadows any other truth people may obtain somewhere else. A sense of perspective is not your friend here. Reframe your thinking and speaking so that whoever fired on you is now the enemy, not merely an ally with a nit to pick, a disagreement over strategy or tactics, or a bit of careless speech. Feel free to extrapolate wildly about what lies at the bottom of the slippery slope they're plunging down like an out-of-control X-Gamer. Make sure you mix their assumptions with yours when you address the issue, so it looks like they're denying the deity of Christ or the inspiration of Scripture, when really the issue started out over whether wine in Scripture is always alcoholic or only sometimes alcoholic. The bigger the doctrine you can tie your position to, the more likely it is that you can force them to back down.

3. Rather than giving a Biblical defense for why what you are doing is right, instead remember that the best defense is a good offense. When they cite Scripture to support what they are saying or to attack your position, feel free to ignore it - after all, even Satan can quote Scripture for his purposes, and since this person is clearly siding with Satan on that issue, they probably are too. It's not necessary to interact with their Scripture as long as you've got some you can quote for your side or, better yet, throw like exploding javelins of truth at them.

4. Dedicate all the attention and resources to this that you can. This matter of which college the preachers for your summer camp come from is critically important and must be dealt with post-haste. How can you worry about focusing on evangelism and edification if someone is sniping at you from behind your own lines? Make sure you turn and give them your full attention. I mean, it's not like Satan is going to take advantage of you turning your back on him for a little while. He's a gentleman in these conflicts, and he'll be glad to call a little truce while you straighten out that erring brother.

Whatever you do, don't actually consult the Scriptures or go to your brother and pray humbly for God to work in and through both of you. Don't assume that he's a reasonably intelligent Christian, indwelt by the Spirit of God, who is trying to serve Jesus Christ to the best of his understanding, just like you are. How can you win the battle against him if you're both on the same side?

What other highly-effective tactics have you seen for dealing with friendly fire? Any good techniques that we Fundamentalists still need to integrate on a larger scale?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Who's the Boss?

No, I'm not asking whether your wife bosses you around or not. That's pretty much a given. (Just kidding, honey, just kidding! Ouch!) Um, anyhow.... I'm asking what the authority in your life is.

Too many times in the last months, I've talked to someone about an issue and brought up Scripture. Yet instead of interacting with that Scripture (even to discuss other ways it might be interpreted), the response has been to invoke tradition ("Well, I've been here 25 years, and we've never done it that way"), popular opinion ("I don't know a single other Fundamental, Independent Baptist preacher in this part of the state who believes that"), emotion ("But this is what I really feel is right"), theology ("But that can't be right, because this doctrine might be affected, and I'm committed to this doctrine"), human authority ("The Sword of the Lord (or Bob Jones University, or whatever other publication or institution the person has an affinity for) takes a different stance on that"), and simple unbelief or self-superiority ("I know what the Bible says about this, but I really think what I'm doing is right.")

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say "I know what the Bible says, but...," I could live like a prosperity-gospel televangelist without ever wearing the makeup. The shattered lives of the people I know personally who have made those statements, then reaped the catastrophe they sowed by ignoring the Bible in favor of some other authority, could occupy a daytime talk show for seasons.

I'm not talking about issues with hazy interpretations of a single word in a single verse. I'm not asking people to fall into line with abstract inferences from Ezekiel and Revelation. I'm talking about matters clearly addressed in Scripture, typically with multiple references, taken in context, teaching the same truths. (And no, I'm not talking about getting all those responses to a single hobby-horse issue of mine, either - these responses range across a variety of subjects and conversations.)

The sad thing is, many of these conversations have been with deacons, with preachers, with long-standing members of good churches. These are people who claim to believe in Biblical authority.

What does Biblical authority mean? It means that whatever the Bible says, we believe. Whatever the Bible commands, we do. It should be that simple. Obviously, we must take Scripture in context and interpret carefully, seeing the Bible as a whole, rather than pulling out little proof texts for pet positions. It doesn't mean we have to change our minds the first time someone hits us with something new and quotes a Bible verse to support it. But when the Bible speaks clearly on an issue or behavior, we ought to listen and obey.

Historically, this was a defining trademark of Fundamentalism. It set the early Fundamentalists apart, probably more than anything. They refused to reinterpret or ignore the Bible based on tradition. They rejected human intellectualism that discarded Biblical accuracy. They determined not to be swayed by the pronouncements of scientists or the pressures of popular culture. They decided that if the Bible said it, they would believe it, and if God commanded it in His Word, they would strive to do it. This was the public stance of the movement, and I applaud it, for it is right. According to Jesus Christ, the Word of God is truth, and according to Paul, it is the means by which we mature and are equipped for every good work. It ought to permeate our lives, directing us in every decision through its precepts and principles.

Yet the spiritual fruit of those who made these pronouncements (however well or poorly those individuals lived out the pronouncements themselves) seems to be falling farther and farther from the tree. Biblical authority is lifted up so long as it can be used as a weapon to enforce what the person already thinks and does, and it is swiftly set aside when it doesn't fit into the preconceived package of ideas the person has.

I'm glad there are many I know in Fundamentalism and even in my church who do truly regard the Bible as the final authority. There are still some left who will search His Word and allow it to change them.

For the rest, I weep. A life or ministry built on any authority other than that of the Word of God stands upon treacherous sands. That house will fall.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stumbles and the Blame Game

This is about the fifth blog post I've started over the span since I last posted. There's a lot on my heart and mind, and a lot going on in the ministry here. But there's something I needed to post before I got back into all of that.

Man, it's hard to admit this, because I know there are people I respect who read this... but I determined to have transparency here. A little while back, I had a few of what folk generally call "stumbles." That's when you go back to the sin... briefly, or to some extent. (How that's different from flat-out falling on your face, I'm not entirely sure - maybe it's because you haven't gone quite as far as you did before, or because you so quickly realize how abominably stupid what you did was and run away from it like a hornet's nest you threw a rock at.) The pattern is still one of consistent victory now, rather than consistent defeat... but the record is no longer unblemished.

As I struggled to quit even the stumbles, I began to realize that they were typically taking place when I was frustrated with my wife. The problems in that relationship, when I didn't handle them properly, spilled right over into another area of weakness.

Marriage is intended by God to protection us from sexual sin (Proverbs 5:15-20 and I Corinthians 7:2-9). When the marriage isn't helping do that, the temptation is vastly multiplied. It's not simply that the walls marriage puts up to protect against those fiery darts are cast down, so that I'm back where I would be if I weren't married. It's worse than that, because it seems a whole new front in the battle is opened, and that weakens the battle lines everywhere. Instead of lacking an ally in the battle, it's being stabbed in the back by your ally. It becomes so easy to think, "If she doesn't want you, she can't complain if you go where there's no rejection."

But so much of that is flawed thinking. Yes, marriage is one means by which God can protect from temptation, and spouses are decidedly responsible for doing what they can to help each other spiritually. But none of us can blame our sin on anyone else. The grace and power of God is sufficient for victory in battle, no matter how many fronts we are assaulted upon. Yes, when we fight the battles in our own strength, it's only a matter of time before the multiplying fronts force us to divide our strength and attention until something gets through somewhere. But when we rely on the power of God, there is no lessening of power on one front because it is needed on another - His supply is infinite.

In reality, the times I sinned were not because my wife let me down. I looked at porn because I became angry my wife let me down. Catch the difference? It wasn't until I did that this series of stumbles stopped. It wasn't her actions that opened the gates for the assault - I unlocked those gates with my wrong reactions.

When stabbed in the back by an ally, we can begin to regard that person as an enemy - but when we turn (even in our thinking) to attack them, we are turning our back on the real enemy. It is far better for me to simply accept the wound, and with that acceptance the healing that God provides, and continue to treat my life's partner with love, even in my thinking. After all, it's not like I've never wounded her, or Him.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

300 Pounds of Opposition to Smoking

Ah, smoking, that favorite whipping boy of the Fundamental, independent Baptist! That vile habit that destroys the body and subjugates the spirit, that corrupts our youth as it clogs the air with its vile exhaust, that exposes our adulterous friendship with the things of this world and our utter lack of devotion to the God who saved us! How dare we desecrate the very temples of the Holy Spirit of God, defiling the merchandise God bought with His own blood?

Where would we be without such an easy target to rail against? It's addictive, and it's destructive. The purveyors of the product have been proven liars, peddling deceptively a product they knew to be deadly. It snares children and kills thousands. Those in bondage to it are there because they don't realize their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit of God, don't care who owns them, or don't have the self-discipline to act on that knowledge and caring.

It feels like a risky target - after all, so many people smoke. The industry behind it is enormous. So we feel bold when we attack it. Yet we know our moral ground is unassailable when we do so. Of course, it helps that even many who smoke don't want to be smoking and that public opinion is really pretty strongly against the big tobacco companies, and no-smoking laws are being passed for enclosed public areas all over. It helps when we know that pretty much our whole audience, even the ones who do smoke or have smoked, would agree that it's bad. Yeah, it takes a bit of nerve to take a stand against something so pervasive, and there are people who will get offended by it - but on the whole, it's a pretty safe place to be bold.

But who is being bold? Who is taking the stand? Often, it's a 300-pound man who should weigh 180, sweating his way through the sermon, out of breath if he runs across the platform. There is a terrible hypocrisy here. If our bodies are truly the temple of the Holy Spirit of God (they are!), and if we shouldn't abuse that which God has placed in our care (we shouldn't!), and if we should have the self-control to live what we know and believe about this (we should!), then why aren't the preachers obligated to live to the same standard?

We have every right and responsibility to proclaim that addictions are dangerous and wrong for the believer. That includes nicotine. We ought not be under the power of anything but the Holy Spirit of God. But why does caffeine get a pass? Because it's more socially acceptable to NEED a cup of coffee in the morning to act human than it is to need a cigarette?

We ought not destroy or bring careless damage to that which belongs to God. Our bodies belong to Him. But why is it okay to slam cigarettes... while eating ourselves into an early grave? Because smoking is fashionable to preach against, while gluttony is the norm?

We ought to have the self-discipline to live out what we believe about belonging to God and discipleship to Jesus Christ in practical ways. That means being willing to not take the easy path in life, to give up something that may seem comfortable or pleasant now for the sake of eternity. Why can we criticize those who don't exercise the self-control to put down the cigarettes... but not go out and exercise these bodies God has given us to use for Him? I know that bodily exercise profits little and that godliness is far more important. Yet an unfit body hardly displays godliness, and it hardly shows that it's kept under and brought into subjection. I'm not saying every preacher should be an All-American athlete - I'm saying we should be good stewards of what the Lord has placed in our care.

Am I saying we should cease preaching against smoking, dipping, chewing, or any other means people court cancer through tobacco? Absolutely not. The principles for preaching against it are sound and Scriptural. But I'm challenging any preacher who speaks against tobacco to be sure his hearers can tell he's living a life of self-discipline and stewardship - or expect to be called rightfully a hypocrite.

After all, is our goal to turn people from one sin, or to lead them in freedom from addiction and disciplined devotion to the Lord who bought us with His blood?

P.S. Lest I seem righteous in myself, rather than in the grace and power of God... it's only been a bit over three months since I sought Him earnestly enough to lay aside my own vile, ease-and-pleasure-centered habit. There have been a few stumbles, but even the last of those was weeks in the past. Christ gets the credit. In myself, I'm no better than any four-pack-a-day chimney.