From Jerusalem to Timbuktu - A Review

If you read the right commentary on the state of Christianity, it will seem like doom is coming and we are well into the waning days of the faith, well past the point of no return. Those discussions of the present and future of Christianity tend to rely on data from the developed world, particularly the Northern Hemisphere that has been strongly influenced by the European colonialism.

In From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, Brian Stiller offers a much different picture. Stiller words as global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance and has previously served as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. The reality he describes is generally more reassuring than the darkest of predictions, but disconcerting to those who have concerns about recent innovations in Christian doctrine. There is much to celebrate about the spread of the gospel, but much work to do, as well.

Stiller offers a number of reasons for the spread of Christianity. He cites the spread of Charismatic theology as a contributor to the spread of Christianity. (More on that later.) He also notes that the increase in the number of Bible translations in the heart languages of more people have advanced the cause of Christ. There is little doubt that the proliferation of God’s word has done a great deal to advance the spread of Christianity as a local movement.

Another reason for the spread of the gospel is the willingness of missionaries, particularly those from the West, to allow Christianity to take local forms by not constraining converts by Western clothing and music. This conversation is helpful, though Stiller seems to be uncritical of some forms of contextualization that appear to be closer to syncretism than authentic Christianity. Additionally, Stiller cites the efforts of Christians to engage in the public square for the common good as Christians. Corollary to engagement in the public square is the recovery of an emphasis on the implications of the gospel—in other words, seeking reconciliation in more than just the spiritual dimension—among Christians.

There is a great deal to celebrate about the growth of Christianity and Stiller’s book is encouraging in that general sense. On the whole, however, Stiller spends too much time arguing for recent theological innovations instead of simply reporting the facts. In particular, Stiller attempts to justify the rise of female pastors and Charismatic theology as normative and consistent with Christian tradition. It is clear from his argument that he believes these movements, largely unknown in the Christian church until the 19th century, are causes to be celebrated regardless of their differences with the historical practices of the church. It would have been a better book if Stiller had reported the facts instead of trying to push a theological agenda. His arguments on this front rely on pragmatic justification: these recent theological developments appear to be working, therefore they must be good.

Both with the rise of Charismatic versions of Christianity and excessive contextualization, the book fails to consider sufficiently the detrimental nature of the syncretism of pagan spirit worship with Christianity that he notes on several occasions. Similarly, he is insufficiently critical of the Prosperity Gospel movement, focusing on the abuses of its leaders rather than the theological poverty of the entire system. That critique is necessarily buried, since the Prosperity Gospel movement is a direct theological child of the revisionist Charismatic and Pentecostal movements—the Prosperity Gospel spreads most rapidly among those who seek ongoing special revelation as a special gift from God.

It is exciting that the gospel is spreading, but not all movements that claim to be gospel may accurately reflect authentic Christianity. In that sense, Stiller’s book should raise concern among orthodox believers.

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Setting aside those critiques, this is a largely encouraging volume. Although there is much handwringing in the West about the rise of Nones and the secularization of our Christian heritage, the Gospel of Christ is on the move. Stiller’s book pulls the reader’s focus from cable news stories about US Supreme Court cases, concerns over student aid for those who choose to attend a Christian university, and the minor persecutions that seem to highlight some media channels.

Most importantly, and the thing that makes this book worth reading, is that it offers reassurance that in Christ we are more than conquerors. It calls the reader to recognize the great need for evangelization, the opportunities for evangelism, and the possibility that each of us can participate in the spread of the gospel if we simply obey the command to do so.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this book with no expectation of a positive review.

A Place for Christian Creeds

During times of cultural acceptance, Christianity in the United States has grown in many directions, some of which are not healthy. Setting aside the heretical movements of Christianity, like the prosperity gospel, which should be rightly be anathematized, there has been a growing movement toward fragmentation.

Denominations have divided. Often this has been for good cause, as when revisionist tendencies have denatured the gospel by rejecting the clear content of Scripture. However, there have been other cases where new denominations and congregations have been formed over non-essential doctrines or mere stylistic preferences.

As orthodox Christian ethics are more consistently and violently rejected in contemporary society, the resident alien church will need to form coalitions more broadly than in recent years. Congregations that refuse to revise doctrines for the spirit of the age will likely face greater punitive forces in society, which will require consolidation of small congregations.

If this scenario unfolds, a central point of contact will need to be established. One possible point of contact for broader Christian coalitions is the traditional Christian creeds.

No Creed but the Bible

Earlier in my life, I embraced the idea that creeds were an unhealthy addition to the Christian tradition.

I found myself fond of the idea, “No creed but the Bible.” This happens to be a refrain that was uttered explicitly by Alexander Campbell, whose primitivist Christian movement has done some good, but has sown a great deal of confusion by reviving the idea of baptismal regeneration.

As I’ve studied Church History and Historical Theology, I’ve realized that those that argue for no creed but the Bible often end up in heresy. If not them, then their followers have significantly modified Christian doctrines through spurious interpretation.

It’s taken years, but I’ve come around to an appreciation of the creeds. They have a place in grounding contemporary Christians in the great tradition.

The Authority of Scripture

Part of my rejection of the Apostles’ Creed, when I was first exposed to it, was due to the phrase describing Christ’s decent into hell. 

Used by CC license from:  http://ow.ly/NzHt302yzkO

Used by CC license from: http://ow.ly/NzHt302yzkO

When I tried to reconcile that passage with Scripture, I simply couldn’t. There might be themes that resonate somewhat with a descent into hell, but there was an insufficient connection between that firm theological statement and Scripture. As a result, my primitivist leanings were validated, and I ignored creeds for another decade.

As it turns out, there is a convincing case to be made for a textual variant in the Apostles’ Creed. It should read that Christ descended to the dead, which is clearly a biblical concept. In this case, textual criticism saves the day. A bad text only cost me a decade of being more strongly connected with traditional Christianity.

My instincts were right. Scripture is the ultimate authority, but when the creeds are rightly presented, they connect us to the theologians who were wrestling with the Bible in light of the controversies of their day. The creeds help me to interpret Scripture rightly to avoid the heresies that drove the creation of the creedal statements in the first place.

Creeds do no replace the authority of Scripture, they help ensure continuity of interpretation of Scripture.

Are the Creeds Enough?

The traditional, ecumenical creeds of the church are documents that reflect the time in which they were written. This is evident as the Christology in the various creeds becomes more complex over time, because the Church was responding to new attacks on a biblical view of Christ.

As a result, the creeds for a common center around which we can worship, but they can’t be used as final guidelines for the extent of Christian doctrine. In other words, they do a great deal to ensure that everyone is worshipping the same God, but there are a whole lot of errors they don’t prevent.

The contemporary church must go beyond the creeds. Even the early church did. For example, the prohibition against abortion was universally accepted in the early church, but since it was not contested within the church, it didn’t need an article in the creeds. Refusing to participate in abortion was also a product of discipleship, which is the result of proper belief in who God is, so it wasn’t necessary to affirm such an obvious ethical claim immediately after conversion.

Although the creeds are not complete, we should consider how we can anchor our worship in the creedal tradition. They provide a strong, common center around which community can be constructed. A creedal center allows others who differ from the majority of the congregation to worship together, even when differing on important secondary matters.

Conclusion

No one knows what the future holds. It may be that the present rumblings in opposition to the free exercise of religion come to nothing.

However, it may be that a crisis due to political machinations can unite faithful Christians around the central doctrines of the church and creeds can help form a common foundation.

A Call to Be A Christian Missionary to Christians

I reviewed a volume not too long ago in which Mark Tietjen presents the thought of Soren Kierkegaard in an attempt to convince the reader that reading Kierkegaard is a worthwhile activity for the contemporary church. I am inclined to agree with him based on his book.

What struck me as perhaps the most significant lesson from the book was the call to be a Christian missionary to Christians. This is the subtitle of the book and it largely describes how Kierkegaard saw himself. It is, in our day, perhaps a necessary task.

Seven Ways to Be a Missionary to Christians

The following extended quotation, drawn from the conclusion of his book outlines some ways Tietjen sees that Christians can be missionaries to other Christians, which is Kierkegaard’s overall ministry:

-               If there are some who are Christians in name only, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are some who have inherited a perverted form of Christianity and know nothing better, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who value created goods over the Creator, then one can be a missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who struggle to trust in God and his goodness, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who fail to believe God can redeem even the least redeemable person, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who lose hope that God’s kindness, forgiveness and redemption extend even to them, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who ‘speak in tongues of angels,’ and so on, but have not love, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
Thus to be a missionary is not simply to convert the lost but to incarnate divine love in obedience to and imitation of Jesus Christ, the God incarnate. This could involve a fresh gospel message, works of love, words of nurture or the trust of one who construes me as neighbor who bears God’s image. The truth is that just as all Christians are called to mission, so too could all Christians use the message and love of the Christian missionary. Mission work quite simply calls others, all others, to God. (161-162)
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Reshaping Missions to Mission

A necessary step into understanding what Tietjen is proposing, and what he claims Kierkegaard supports, is altering the concept of "missions." This is by no means a new conversation, but it is one that hasn't always found escape from the halls of academia.

In general terms "missions" refers to the concept of going out to evangelize, do good works, and spread the good news of Christianity. When you think "missions" think vocational missionaries, evangelistic meetings, and a focused effort to reach people who have not previously accepted the gospel.

The term "mission" encompasses those things, but it is an umbrella term that defines a broader range of activity. Advocates of the concept of "mission" are affirmative of focused evangelistic efforts, but also see the gospel importance of daily living. The faith and work integration movement has this vision. Every action has the potential to preach the gospel in some way.

Behind Tietjen's explanation of Kierkegaard as a Christian missionary to Christians is this understanding of the purpose of the Christian life. It broadens the pool of gospel workers to include all truly converted Christians and broadens the work that is considered to promote the advance of the gospel.

Speaking Truth to a post-Christian America

We live in a post-Christian America. Perhaps even a post-reality America. Although I do not believe that America was ever a "Christian nation" in the sense that the nation had a divine mandate or was especially blessed because of its faithfulness, I do see in the pages of history a general Christian consensus.

Obviously that consensus has decayed. And yet, a form of cultural Christianity continues on. This is the sort of Christianity that allows people voting for an immoral, authoritarian candidate for the highest office in the country to claim that he is somehow chosen by God for the office. (Which he may be, just not for the reasons they suppose.) Many of these people claim to be "Evangelical Christians," but do not darken the doors of any church on a regular basis. This is the sort of Christianity that needs Christian missionaries.

Or, on the other side of the political spectrum there are individuals who brand every form of social deconstruction a form of "progress" and make public arguments that adherence to any sense of moral law outside of "judge not" is sub-Christian. There is a large block of such professed Christians in the United States that need the gospel as much as your Buddhist neighbor. They need a vision of the transformative power of conversion, where the Lordship of Christ is apparent over every corner of life.

This is the sort of application that Tietjen is calling for. The gospel must be evident in every area of the life of every Christian. I must say that on this point I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Our Focus on the Cross

For Christians, this is one of the most religiously significant weeks of the year. This Sunday we will celebrate the Messiah’s victory over sin, death, and hell. Along with that, we will celebrate our participation in that victory by the grace of God.

The truth and power of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection for the world is the most important reality that Christians have to communicate to the surrounding world. My hope for myself is that I will allow myself to live in this moment of remembrance and demonstrate the truthfulness of the most significant fact of available redemption for all of creation, including those who believe. The challenge is to keep the cares of the world from choking out this all important message at this very focused time.

The Superlative Reality

Doorway to Holy Week, used by CC license, Alves Family. http://ow.ly/ZNSc8 

Doorway to Holy Week, used by CC license, Alves Family. http://ow.ly/ZNSc8 

Many pastors begin their weekly sermon by commenting why this week’s passage is “the most important” or “my favorite” more than occasionally. No doubt after the pastor has labored over the text that week, there is a sense of familiarity and appreciation for it that makes a regular lapse into superlative language forgivable. Likely the label simply means that the pastor is excited by the content or that this is a truth that should press home to the congregation. This is a foible that can be quickly passed over.

However, when the apostle Paul, who was not prone to abuse the superlative, declares something to be of first importance it should cause us to sit up and listen.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. I Cor 15:3-8

Paul’s message that is of first importance is simply that the atonement has come and that due to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection humans can be freed from the penalty of their sin.

The Trap of Complacency

For those of us that have been in church, the Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday (maybe), Good Friday, Easter Sunday pattern can seem mundane and repetitive. In fact, if a congregation is not careful, the celebration of these events can become mundane. Complacency is a real human danger, where we fail to recognize the importance of what we are doing.

In the years that I worked in nuclear power, complacency was a constant enemy and a visible concern. There were signs posted around the training building that declared, “Complacency will kill us.” Working in an industrial environment, and with powerful technology like nuclear power, made that truth especially valid. But everything becomes routine when we become familiar with it.

At times, we have to intentionally focus on the special nature of a particular truth so that its power comes home to us once again. That’s what the week leading to the celebration of Easter is supposed to do.

Making it Special

Leading up to this Easter season, our family has been focusing on the names of Jesus using a series of daily devotionals that my wife wrote. This has helped keep Christology at the heart of our discussions for the past weeks.

We will likely read and watch parts of the Jesus Storybook Bible in the coming days. We will read passages of Scripture from the passion accounts. All this to make the season memorable and worshipful, as much as we are able.

Even these things can become another flourish in an already-too-busy life, though. The challenge for all of us is to find a way to make the celebration significant and focus on the powerful reality of it without making it just another thing to do.

Avoiding Distraction

The world seems to seek ways to distract from the gravity. This week already, we’ve seen a terrorist attack. There is an ongoing political spectacle that has dragged on for eternity and seems like it will go on forever. If history repeats itself, there will be a well-timed controversy over religious revisionism—both through articles rejecting the historicity of Scripture and from voices seeking to protest traditional Christian morality on some hot-button topic.

The pattern of these events is all too regular for them not to be timed, if not by humans, then perhaps by some of the spiritual forces that we forget about sometimes.

Whether these are simply more notable distractions because they occur during a time of more intentional religious devotion or somehow orchestrated is irrelevant. What is significant is their power to pull our gaze away from the cross, its power, its meaning, and its historicity.

The reality of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is of first importance according to Paul. Do not allow anything to tear your focus away from pondering that profound truth this week.

Passing Along Thick Christianity

Most people try to pass along their beliefs to their children. Even the atheists that claim that all religious education is child abuse are, by virtue of making such a claim, demonstrating a dominant worldview claim that they hope their children will latch onto.

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

The rationale for this is simple. If someone actually believes his religion is true in an objective way, then it follows that he will hope his child will also believe that the same religion is true. This is because truth about the world tends to make the world easier to live in.

For the sincere Christian believers, the content of their belief may be passed to their children either as thick belief or as thin belief. Surely there is room on the spectrum between these points for degrees of each, but the ends of the scale are useful to illustrate my point.

What is Thick Christianity?

Thick Christianity is a doctrinally sound, ethically rich, gospel saturated faith. This is not to say that it is overflowing with systematic theology (though it may be), or that every choice made is moral (which it certainly won’t be), or even that conversion will occur in the children. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, thus even when thick Christianity is communicated some children may never be born again. However, children who have been exposed to thick Christianity will be able to explain the content of and rationale for the Christian faith whether they have personally accepted it or not.

I have heard it said, though I no longer remember by whom, that in one generation the gospel is loved and known. In the second it is assumed. In the third it is forgotten and abandoned.

This pattern can be witnessed in the fall of once boldly Christian institutions into a malaise of unbelief within a few short generations. A prime example of this is Oberlin University in Ohio. Once it was a robustly Christian institution, but a search of the website now reveals that the gospel is no longer central to their mission. The same phenomenon can occur in churches and denominations. A congregation that was once vibrantly faithful can so easily fall into cultural Christianity in a few years if the central message of the gospel is assumed for a while. Later it will likely be neglected and changed or forgotten. At that point a church becomes a social club and a university becomes just another non-profit educational establishment. There is still some value for society in these mediating institutions, but the transformational power of the gospel is lost.

Thin Christianity is more subject to this sort of generational attenuation than is thick Christianity because thin Christianity lacks the substance that would sustain it. We should expect this, because early in Scripture we get evidence of the importance of living thickly for the propagation of faithfulness between generations.

In Deuteronomy 6, which is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites, he affirms the important theological truth of the oneness of God. (v. 4) Then he commands them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (vv. 5-6) In other words, theological truth must result in right ethical action for the believer. The oneness of God led to worship both through adoration and through action. This is part of living a thick Christianity and not merely being a hearer of the word. (cf. Jas. 1:22)

But there is more to the story. Immediately after this Moses gives another command to his audience, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (v. 7)

The significance of verse 7 is not that teaching should be done when sitting, walking, lying down, or rising, but rather that all of life is teaching opportunity for communicating a thick Christianity to our children. Teach them not just the “what” of Christianity, but the “why.” This is what makes a Christianity thick. It is a form of Christianity that is lived, authentic, and grounded in substance. This is the sort of Christianity that has a hope of being sustained across generations.

Ultimately, God does the work of salvation in our children. However, if our Christianity is true, it makes sense to live it in such a way that our religion cannot be reduced to a weekly routine or a set of prohibitions.

What is Thin Christianity?

Despite what some might expect, a thin Christianity is not necessarily unorthodox. Someone can be a faithful Fundamentalist with (mostly) biblical doctrine and live a thin Christianity before their family. There are many faithful Christians that have the right doctrine, but they often do not know why. In other cases, they do understand the basis of their doctrine, but fail to communicate it effectively to their children.

The difference is the depth of living in Christ. Our kids are with us all the time and they can tell when we’re going through the motions. Thin Christianity may have all the right motions, but it is often missing the most important emotion: joy.

A Call to Live Christianity Thickly

Thankfully, sometimes God takes thin Christianity and uses it to make Christians that live thickly. Grace is a wonderful thing.

But it is a much better thing to pass on a thick Christianity to our children. That way they get the benefit of doing the right things for the right reasons, of being faithful and experiencing the joy of knowing Christ richly, and of being able to reference a heritage of thick Christianity when they live well before their children. And by living well I don’t mean getting everything right, I mean pursuing the joy of the Lord in all things.

This is, I think, what Paul was getting at when he wrote Colossians 3:12-17:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.