Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Revelation, by James M. Hamilton, Jr.

Book Review by Chris Haven

James Hamilton has written a fine commentary on the book of Revelation. As part of the “Preaching the Word” commentary series, he has followed the flavor of the series by keeping the content at a more popular level (avoiding extensive footnotes and highly technical discussions) with a large amount of meaningful application.

Although not stated explicitly in the book, Hamilton appears to write from a kind of idealist and futurist perspective. His view on Revelation 20 is Premillennial (historic). Hamilton parts ways with Dispensationalists regularly in this text, making it clear that he is not a Dispenationalist. For instance, Hamilton takes the perspective that God will preserve his elect through the tribulation, not remove them in a prior rapture (p. 116).  He understands “Daniel’s seventieth week” as the entire age between Christ’s first and second coming, not as a final seven year tribulation at the end of the church age (pp. 171-72, 194). He rejects a straight chronology, holding to a form of parallelism or recapitulation where the same period of time is depicted more than once using differing imagery (p. 188). He does not believe that a new temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem (p. 234), and he sees the two witnesses of Revelation 11 as representing not literal figures but the church proclaiming the gospel during the church era (p. 237).

This commentary had many strengths.

First, it was very readable. As mentioned above, one does not get bogged down in highly technical discussions or distracted by any number of potential scholarly debates. Hamilton tips his hat to other perspectives where it is appropriate, but keeps the flow moving.

Second, the commentary had a devotional quality missing from many commentaries. The length of the chapters (being ten to fifteen pages a piece) and the significant amount of application in each chapter made for great devotional reading. I actually used this commentary as a supplement to my daily Bible reading as I read through the book of Revelation. That was a tremendously edifying experience.

Finally, Hamilton models careful exegesis in making his decision of how to interpret the Millennium by comparing the casting of Satan out of heaven in Revelation 12 with the text of Revelation 20. While he ultimately is convinced that the millennium is future, he does not let his Millennialism dominate as Dispensational Premillennialists sometimes do, especially at the popular level. His careful work in the text shows that one's decision about the Millennium in reality does not radically affect how one interprets the rest of the book. For Hamilton, the millennium is not the main event of the book of Revelation. 

There are only a few minor weaknesses to mention.  

First, it would have been helpful to include an introduction that provided a bit more on the perspective from which Hamilton was writing. Is he writing as an idealist, a futurist or a preterist? Do sections overlap chronologically, and if so, where are the seams? What is the grand organizing principle of the book? His perspective, of course, comes out in his exegesis, and helpful chiastic structural diagrams are placed in appropriate chapters. But I’ve always found it beneficial to have some idea up front how a scholar is going to handle the book of Revelation in terms of its “big picture.”

Second, in certain places I was left wondering how a particular symbolic representation will take shape in real history. Chapters often seemed to move from Old Testament background to present day application without commenting adequately on how a given prophecy might be fulfilled in real time and space. For instance, it may be true that a locust plague referred to a human army in Deuteronomy 28 and Joel 1 and 2 (p. 215), but how will a human army literally be a part of God’s final dealings with this present age? What about the substantial destruction of the world’s natural resources? What about Armageddon? While I appreciate Hamilton’s seeming aversion to charting out an end times chronology, I think he might do well to address the propensity that readers still expect to find out something about what is really (rather than symbolically) going to happen. I suspect Hamilton has provided as much detail as he feels comfortable giving without going into wild speculation. He comments in one place that God “has given us symbols, not specifics” (p. 324).   

In conclusion, James Hamilton’s commentary on Revelation is well worth reading. Not only will you learn more about the book of Revelation, but you will learn much about how to apply this important book to your life.

I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing to provide a review. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why Church Matters, by Joshua Harris

Book Review by Chris Haven

Why Church Matters, previously published with the title Stop Dating the Church!, is a short and highly accessible introduction to what the church is and why every believer should be a part of its local expression.

In chapter one, Harris discusses what one misses when one fails to join the local church. The local church is God’s community, “the vehicle that Jesus chose to take the message of the gospel to every generation and people” (p. 10). He identifies what typifies someone who casually “dates” local churches rather than committing to them. “Church-daters” are portrayed as “me-centered” (what can the church do for me?), “independent” (avoiding meaningful involvement with people), and “critical” (having a fickle, consumeristic mentality) (pp. 6-7). In failing to become part of the local church, Harris says “you cheat cheat a church community…[and] you cheat the world” (p. 8).

In chapter two, the church is presented as God sees and defines it. Harris makes the biblical distinction between the “big C Church” (the Universal Church) and the “local church.” The big C Church is described in Scripture as God’s bride. Harris then highlights three descriptions of the local church from the book of Ephesians; the church is portrayed as a family, a body and a temple (pp. 23-25).

Chapter three argues for the importance of being part of the local church. Harris, like Charles Spurgeon and Mark Dever, is not timid in asserting that failure to be an active participant in the local church is tantamount to disobedience and gives possible evidence that one has not truly been converted. Harris agrees with Dever that the “church is there to verify or falsify our claims to be Christians”(p. 45).  A “new life,” says Harris, leads inevitably to a “new society.” This new society provides uniquely what no other organization on earth can (para-church ministries notwithstanding), namely, the ordinances of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline (p. 39).

Chapter four addresses what it really means to be committed to the local church. Harris suggests the following seven indicators of commitment:
  1. You join.
  2. You make the local church a priority.
  3. You try to make your pastor’s job a joy.
  4. You find ways to serve.
  5. You give.
  6. You connect with people.
  7. You share your passion.

In chapter five, Harris provides ten “essential” things that one should consider when choosing a church. His “must-have” list is as follows:

  1. Is this a church where God’s Word is faithfully taught?
  2. Is this a church where sound doctrine matters?
  3. Is this a church in which the gospel is cherished and clearly proclaimed?
  4. Is this a church committed to reaching non-Christians with the gospel?
  5. Is this a church whose leaders are characterized by humility and integrity?
  6. Is this a church where people strive to live by God’s Word?
  7. Is this a church where I can find and cultivate godly relationships?
  8. Is this a church where members are challenged to serve?
  9. Is this a church that is willing to kick me out?
  10. Is this a church I’m willing to join “as is” with enthusiasm and faith in God?

In chapter six Harris suggests a number of ways one can get more mileage out of Sunday for our entire week.  While not a strict Sabbatarian, he suggests that we should un-clutter Sunday as “the Lords Day” (p. 93). We should prepare ahead of service by going to bed on time the night before and preparing our hearts for worship before the service (pp. 95-100). During the service, we should practice attentive listening to the sermon (pp. 100-103). After the service we should be looking at ways to apply the text all week long (pp. 103-106). 

In the final chapter, we our exhorted to be committed to the local church: “If you passionately love Jesus Christ but haven’t been committed to the church, I hope you’ve heard your Master come to you on the pages of this book” (p. 114).

This is one of those books that you can read in one sitting and absorb many great concepts and practical applications.

First, the book concisely sets forth a biblical theology of the church. That it is both universal and local, and that being a part of the former and not the latter is a massive inconsistency and a cause for spiritual concern. This is a helpful corrective to a dearth of teaching on the importance of the church as an institution of the highest spiritual significance.  Harris, vis-à-vis Mark Dever, strikes the right balance between stating the essential importance of local church participation for one’s spiritual life without teaching that the church is the font of salvation.

Second, the discussion on Christian unity was very helpful. Too often the fact of denominational differences is “Exhibit A” for disunity within the church. Harris rightly points out that denominationalism actually provides for people who disagree about secondary and tertiary issues to do church separately, while firmly upholding a common gospel and engaging in the mission of the church together. Groups like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals are examples of organizations made up of people from a variety of Evangelical denominations, while all monolithic with respect to the Gospel. In my view this is a far superior way to show unity than to bring all Christians under one umbrella to be part of a single institution and feign agreement or battle over very controversial non-essentials.

Third, Harris helpfully points out the uniqueness of the local church. The church does what no secular or para-church organization can do. As someone once said, the church is an education with teeth. I have long thought of local church membership in terms of one formally associating with a local group of believers under a commitment to share in the benefits and responsibilities of community life and to submit to the leadership and authority of God’s appointed church leaders. Thinking of church membership this way shows why the concept of a “casual-dater” of the church is so at odds with a New Testament worldview. How does the casual-dater obey the New Testament command to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls?”

If you are a pastor or church leader, I would recommend buying this book in bulk and handing it out to visitors. This would also be a great book to have as a component to a membership class. 

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gospel-Centered Discipleship, by Jonathan K. Dodson

Publication Date: March 31, 2012

Book Review by Chris Haven

After a brief introductory chapter, Gospel-Centered Discipleship is organized into three major parts: Defining Discipleship, Getting to the Heart, and Applying the Gospel.

Part one is divided into two chapters. The first chapter addresses the controversial subject of whether the disciplemaking mandate of the Great Commission should be seen as a command to evangelize, a command to edify, or both. The second chapter in this part concerns the goal of discipleship, which is to become like Jesus.

Part two, Getting to the Heart, contains three chapters. The first chapter deals with the failure of discipleship. Specifically, the topic of improper motivations for discipleship is discussed. The second chapter then identifies the Gospel as the proper motivation for discipleship. The final chapter of this part suggests that the power of discipleship is found in the leading, guiding, and sanctifying of the Holy Spirit.

In the third part, Applying the Gospel, there are three final chapters: communal discipleship, practical discipleship, and the maturing and multiplying disciples. These final three chapters put “skin” on the discipleship model advocated in the book, showing examples for implementation in the contexts of traditional small groups and intensive one-anothering cell groups which Dodson calls “fight clubs.”

Gospel-Centered Discipleship has a number of strengths.

First, Dodson wades into the dialogue concerning whether we should see discipleship as primarily evangelism or edification and rightly goes with a “both/and” approach over and against an “either/or” approach. In summary, he states that “the gospel that ‘makes’ disciples is very same gospel that ‘matures’ disciples,” and that we should collapse “the dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship” such that we see that “disciples are made and matured through repentance and faith in the good news” (p. 40). This perspective is similar to the one discipleship guru Bill Hull advocated several years ago in his book, The Disciple-Making Pastor, wherein he suggests that disciples are “born to be made.” Dodson provides a helpful graphic depicting on an x-y axis the balance in discipleship between mission (evangelism) and holiness (maturity) as what he calls "integrated discipleship," represented as a diagonal line on the graph.

Second, Dodson rightly advocates for discipleship which is holistic, stating “the gospel-centered disciple serves Jesus at work and at home, in the study and in the projects, in church and in culture. His aim is public obedience of every kind” (p. 48). This is a needed reminder that discipleship not only happens while serving on a mission trip or during a personal quiet time, but it encompasses all of life.

Third, there is a helpful discussion of how accountability, wrongly understood, turns into either law enforcement or cheap grace. The former involves one Christian policing another Christian’s conduct. The latter turns accountability into a “confessional booth” where “I confess my sin; you confess yours. I pat your back. You pat mine. Then we pray. We depart absolved of any guilt” (p. 65). Dodson rightly suggests that both of these approaches to accountability are devoid of the gospel and its transformative power. Both legalism and license are deadly to the Christian life.

The book also contained some weak points.

First, I think Dodson’s synthesis of discipleship identity into component parts of rational, relational, and missional (pp. 30-31) is not quite comprehensive enough to capture the essence of New Testament discipleship. This formulation captures the cognitive (rational) and active (relational and missional) elements of discipleship, but leaves out the internal dimension. A more holistic synthesis involves the head, hands and heart. This is essentially the perspective that The Trellis and the Vine provides in stating that disciple-making “involves nurturing and teaching people in their understanding and knowledge (their convictions), in their godliness and way of life (character), and in their abilities and practical experience of ministering to others (their competence)” (Trellis, pp. 154-55). Discipleship must be about bringing every facet of ones humanity under the Lordship of Christ; discipleship is about biblically-directed knowing, doing and being.

Second, I appreciate Dodson’s concern to make Jesus the center of discipleship. He rightly says, “Jesus, alone, should take the center place in our lives, not our Bible reading, evangelism, character, or effort to be different or spiritual. No disciple will ever graduate from the school of grace” (p. 40). I wonder, however, if perhaps at places in the book he overcompensates a bit. For instance, Dodson contends that “Bible reading, prayer, fasting, [and] confession,” which he calls “vertical piety,” leads to a situation where “disciples unknowingly try to cultivate righteousness on their own apart from Christ” (p. 44). Certainly it is possible for a Christian to focus too much on pietistic exercises. However, I do not think this is the necessary consequence for those who engage in what other authors like Donald Whitney would call the spiritual disciplines. Whitney’s perspective in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life actually sees the danger for most people in being that they have too little vertical piety. I have yet to meet a person who reads his Bible and prays for too many hours per day. The reality is that Jesus and the gospel do not immediately come upon us, they are the result of means.

Third, while I agree with Dodson that the indwelling Holy Spirit is Who empowers disciples to live Godly lives and provides guidance, I have some difficulty with the way he formulates the Spirit’s directing influence in our lives.

One the one hand, he seems to overemphasize the subjective directing by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. One example he gives for how one can better be led by the Spirit is, “Instead of just deciding which coffee shop or restaurant you want to go to, ask the Spirit to lead you” (p. 93). It is true that the book of Acts has examples of the Spirit leading individuals to take certain specific action like Philip approaching the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:29), Peter going with the men sent from Cornelius (11:12), the church at Antioch setting aside Paul and Barnabas for ministry (13:2), and Paul and Silas being directed away from Asia (16:6-7). While the Spirit may lead in this way should He chose to do so, it seems that the references in Acts should not be used as proof-texts to suggest this kind of leading is a normative means of the Spirit working in the believer’s life any more than the Spirit’s activity witnessed in Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17, 10:44-46, and 19:1-7 should be seen as normative or expected with every believer’s conversion. The problem with making this element of the Spirit's ministry the primary focus is that it often becomes very subjective if not solidly anchored to the other ways in which the Spirit works in the life of the believer (i.e., the renewed mind, godly counselors, and Scripture).

This leads to the other side of the imbalance, where Dodson seems to downplay the intellect in the process of decision-making when he states disparagingly, “Decision making is reduced to a personal inner dialogue with our reason, not an opportunity to relate the person of the Spirit. We succumb to a ploy of the Deceiver who would have us ‘mistake’ the Spirit for fleeting personal preference or a rational option. When we do this, we depersonalize the Spirit” (p. 100). My question is why do we need to choose between reason and the Spirit? Do we not have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16)? Have not our minds been renewed (Rom. 12:2)? More balance needs to be brought to this issue.

In conclusion, while some concepts in the book seem to be more satisfactorily addressed by other authors, Gospel-Centered Discipleship provides some solid material on how to view discipleship with Christ and the gospel driving the process. Particularly helpful is Part Three of the book where many practical suggestions are shared for implementation of small group discipleship ministry in the local church.

I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing for this review.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Radical Together, By David Platt

A Book Review by Chris Haven

In Radical Together, David Platt has once again written a book that excites, convicts, and sends one well outside of one’s comfort zone. In his first book, Radical, Platt focused on how individuals should live as committed Christians. In this new book, he takes similar concepts and applies them to the local church.

There are six chapters in the book. The first chapter delves into the issue of how churches do ministry. In short, Platt argues that local church ministries often slide into a mode of doing many good things that actually detract from the best thing, which is disciple making.

In chapter two, Platt clears up some possible misapplications of the call to be radical with respect to the gospel. Platt suggests that on the one hand a believer is saved from work, meaning justification is all about what Christ has done for us and nothing about what we do to earn God’s favor. On the other hand, the believer is saved to do good works. Good works should be the natural result of becoming a Christian. Platt writes that the proper stance of the Christian with respect to the gospel and work is: “In the Gospel I am free to follow [Christ’s] commands” (p. 30).

In chapter three, the focus is on the Word of God as the centerpiece of what it means to be a disciple making church. Platt argues that there needs to be a dependence upon the sufficient Word for both what the church is to be doing and the method for doing it. Chapter four addresses what Platt sees as the wrong method for doing local church ministry. For Platt, it is a strategic misstep for a church to subordinate the equipping of individual saints for ministry to the creating of cutting edge worship performances and environments, excessive programming and the reliance on “professionals” to do the work of the ministry.

Chapter five is a plea for foreign missions. Platt exhorts churches to have a burden not only for the lost in their immediate communities, but also the lost within the many unreached peoples around the world. In chapter six, Platt provides several examples of what it means to live more selflessly to advance God’s agenda.

There are many positive things to mention in this sequel. First, Platt’s tone is to be commended. While he has much to criticize about the contemporary American Evangelical church, he avoids what sometimes comes across in others with similar critiques as bitterness against the “establishment.” There are many examples where Platt shows modesty and humility. He acknowledges, for instance, “I have so much to learn” (p. 3), and later in the book reflects that as a rookie pastor “I had no clue how to be a part of, much less to lead, such a large church” (p. 42).

Second, Platt’s discussion of ministry planning is right on the mark. He highlights a very real proclivity among churches to stray from the main focus of the church, namely, the evangelizing the lost and discipling the saved. Anecdotally, he shares of one man in his congregation that confessed, “despite all the good things he had done in the church, he could not name one person outside his family who he had led to Christ and who was now walking with Christ and leading others to Christ.” I have no doubt this reality is widespread in Evangelicalism today. Platt is concerned about this, and we should be also. If the purpose Christ established the church to fulfill has been largely lost in the busy activities of the church there is a very serious problem.

I believe his critique of the contemporary formula for church growth is accurate. There is a tendency to create metrics of success in churches around the most visible and tangible elements which may have very little to do with achieving real spiritual growth. As performance, places, programs and professionals become the focus, the development of individuals into Christ-like maturity is left to a less-than-effective “system.”

As a corrective for this state of affairs, Platt exhorts churches to put everything but the theological non-negotiables “on the table.” We cannot simply ask “what’s wrong with certain programs and activities?” because that is not the issue. There are many good things that churches find themselves doing. The more productive and relevant question is whether current “programs and activities [are] the best way to spend our time, money, and energy for the spread of the gospel in our neighborhood and in all nations?”

Fortunately, Platt is not alone in his prescription. Others are thinking the same way. For example, Matthias Media, the publisher that recently released the popular book, The Trellis and the Vine, is an Evangelical Australian-based resource producer that has been publishing resources for several decades that are designed to aid churches in focusing on evangelism and edification as the main course of church life. They have also produced an excellent resource called Mission Minded to help churches strategically plan with the right priorities. Also, Kevin DeYoung’s and Greg Gilbert’s book released this year called What is the Mission of the Church? echoes many of the same ideas that Platt addresses with respect to focusing the churches resources around the mission/Great Commission of the church.

A third positive feature of the book worthy of highlighting is Platt’s reminder that while the recent popularity of missional living and local church planting is to be commended, we should not lose sight of our duty to reach the lost around the world. Human nature is the swinging of pendulums, and I think Platt has given us a helpful reminder to keep proper balance.

As for negative critique, there is a question I have about Platt’s move from the individual Christian to the collection of Christians as the local church. A social theorist might say Platt falls on more of the individualist rather than collectivist side of the scale. There is a sense that Platt perhaps makes a jump from what individual Christians ought to do (Radical) to what the church as a group of individuals ought to do (Radical Together). In other words, the mission of the whole can tend to sound identical to the mission of individuals. The places in the book where this seems to be most prominent is where he discusses what is today often referred to as “social justice.” It is completely appropriate to expect that individual Christians should be all about serving and giving to the physical needs of their fellow man around the world (p. 18). However, I think we need to be careful here. In What is the Mission of the Church?, DeYoung and Gilbert rightly speak of an important distinction between the “the church organic” and “the church institutional.” They suggest that “there is a difference between the individual Christian and the local church, and therefore we can’t just say that whatever we see commanded of the individual Christian is also commanded of the local church. For DeYoung and Gilbert, “the mission of the church…seems to be something narrower than the set of all commands given to individual Christians – it’s proclamation, witness, and disciple making.”

I suspect that Platt may not take real issue with this, however, I think Radical Together does not clearly articulate the distinction and may lead unintentionally to undermining the narrowing of ministry focus advocated in chapter one. Perhaps it would have been helpful for Platt to insert a few lines in chapter one addressing the need to see the church’s mission as a bit narrower than the duties of individual Christians.

In conclusion, Radical Together is a book that should be read widely. This would be a great book to study for a church leadership team who wants an introduction to what they need to be thinking about to assess their ministry. Other books with a complementary philosophy of ministry, like The Trellis and the Vine, Mission Minded, and What is the Mission of the Church?, would be helpful books to read along side this one. 

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gender Identity: A New Legally-Protected Class

There are numerous state and Federal laws on the books that protect employees from employer discrimination for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information,  age, and more recently, sexual orientation. Today, however, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a new transgender anti-discrimination bill, which makes “gender identity” a new protected class under Massachusetts' non-discrimination statutes. The language of the statute defines gender identity as:
. . . a person's gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person's physiology or assigned sex at birth. Gender-related identity may be shown by providing evidence including, but not limited to, medical history, care or treatment of the gender-related identity, consistent and uniform assertion of the gender-related identity or any other evidence that the gender-related identity is sincerely held, as part of a person's core identity; provided however, gender-related identity shall not be asserted for any improper purpose.
Notice the statutory language says that that people, so long as they hold a "gender-related identity...sincerely," must be recognized as a member of that class of gender regardless of their "physiology or assigned sex at birth." Is sex "assigned at birth" as the statute presupposes? Can a person change his or her "gender" by having an operation or simply willing it to be so? Clearly, the Massachusetts legislature and the Governor believe this is the case.

This is a striking example of what happens when there is no authoritative standard above a human committee for what it means to be a male or female. Legislatures can wander into what has traditionally been the bailiwick of theologians and philosophers and authoritatively legislate a metaphysical viewpoint. How foolish. How sad.

What should our response be to news like this? Let me suggest two appropriate responses.

First, we should pray for our culture because they are lost and suffering the consequences of that lostness. They claim to be wise, but they have become fools (Rom. 1:22). As they run from the God they know, God gives them over with increasing measure to the horrible consequences of rebellion against Him (Rom. 1:24ff). Sexual confusion is precisely the example Paul uses in Romans 1 as the devastating result of rejecting God's standards. This is a curse we should not wish upon anyone.

Second, we should boldly proclaim God's truth in the face of this morass of confusion. God has made human beings in his image, male and female (Gen. 1:27). "Sex" and "gender" are not like a piece of clothing you can put on and take off at will. As Christians, we have a standard that is clear. We have a God who has revealed to us what it means to be a man and a woman. We are not groping in the dark for an answer. We have something solid to grasp and a message to proclaim to the world.
May we love the people around us enough to pray for them and share with them the truth that can set them free.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Free Book Give Away at Credo Magazine

The Credo Magazine Blog is giving away Gregg Allison's new book, Historical Theology. The site is a great resource, but now there is even more incentive to stop by and put your name in the running for this fine book. Check it out here

A Response From David Murrow

Read David Murrow's response to one of my criticisms of his book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. Here is the link.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why Men Hate Going to Church, by David Murrow

Book Review by Chris Haven

The book is divided into three main sections: “Where are the Men,” “Church Culture v. Man Culture,” and “Calling the Church Back to Men.” Each of these sections is divided up into multiple chapters. Murrow moves from establishing that there is a problem (i.e., men are significantly underrepresented in the church at large) to showing some of the reasons (i.e., church is girly) to putting forth some suggestions for how to fix the problem.

There are a number of positives to mention in this book. First, I think church-going men will get a good laugh at the various descriptions of the more “feminine” aspects of church life. We’ve all been there – extended emotive praise choruses, holding hands with a guy across the aisle, hand-sewn banners in the sanctuary, etc.  Many of the anecdotal stories resonated with me personally and were very humorous.

Second, I generally agree that there has been a feminization of the church as men have become increasingly MIA. Even when there are men physically present in large numbers, they often are absent where it really counts. Leadership may be vested in males theoretically, but often these men are passive and fail to provide and execute a clear vision for the church. As Murrow rightly observes, “high achieving men” typically get fed up with churches because of “the inefficiency of church meetings,” unproductiveness, and lack of proper focus (p. 30). He goes on to say:

Being a church leader is a frustrating experience because a man cannot lead like a man. Instead he must be careful, sentimental, and thrifty; make every decision by consensus; talk everything to death. Decisions take months or years to make, and if someone’s feelings might be hurt, we don’t move forward (p. 33).

I’ve been there. Maybe you have too.

Third, Murrow provides helpful ideas for how to eliminate external obstacles that stand in the way of men being engaged in church life. He advocates, for example, teaching and preaching to visual as well as verbal learning styles (p. 91). This is good solid advice that learning professionals have been advocating for many years.  Praying in a more conversational tone to God is also a good suggestion, not only because it makes men more comfortable, but because it is, as Murrow points out, biblical (p. 197). God is not interested in our “many words,” but what is behind them (Matt. 6:7).  I also agree that our churches would do well to turn the lion’s share of ministry energy to developing men. Murrow provocatively suggests:

What if we canceled the children’s ministry and put that effort into building up the men of the church? I firmly believe that such an approach would, in the long run, win more youth to Christ. It would also save more marriages and produce happier women. Children’s ministry and youth ministry are good things – but spiritually healthy male role models are the best thing.

I couldn’t agree more.

There were several problems with the book in my view. The first one is serious. In attempting to show Jesus’ “manly” side, I frankly think Murrow crossed the line and actually advocated a sub-biblical, heterodox position about Christ. He writes “Christ had a volcanic temper and regularly expressed impatience with his disciples. He didn’t show much peace, gentleness, or self-control” (p. 48). “Jesus is… rude” (p. 49). I don’t know how else to view a “volcanic temper,” “impatience,” rudeness and a lack of “self-control” other than sin. And if these are sinful heart conditions, then Jesus sinned. Giving Morrow the benefit of the doubt, I don’t assume he meant to make that point. However, that is really what his statements imply.  I understand the point he was trying to make: Jesus is not a wimp. But it is a false dilemma to force one to choose between sissy and sinner. Jesus was neither.

Second, there seems to be a tendency in the book to reduce the problems with low male participation to strictly external impediments like sanctuary environment and childhood religious baggage. It seems to me that the spiritual component of the equation was almost completely absent from the book. The fact that a husband only attends church services at Christmas and Easter with his family surely is not merely an issue of the husband not wanting to raise his hands during corporate singing or sit through a sermon longer than twenty-five minutes. The kind of apathy shown in such a man should at least raise a question as to a serious spiritual problem. In chapter ten, Murrow lays out 12 reasons that men don’t want to go to church. To that list I scribbled in at the end of the chapter: “#13 - Many Men are Simply Unregenerate.”

Third, Murrow seems to idealize the Megachurch throughout the book. I don’t disagree with the author that the Megachurch has perfected many of the systems that make a church run like a well-oiled machine. I have been a part of several churches that do many operational things well and that I have very much appreciated. But with all that the Megachurch does right in reaching men as they walk through the front door, I question whether the Megachurch model is quite as effective in leading men from the casual observer to the devoted follower of Christ, even though they are likely to have that as a missional goal. What seems to be prevalent in many Megachurches is the reality that there is greater cover for men to never move beyond anonymity in the sea of people and smorgasbord of arm’s-length programming. It seems that meaningful one-on-one discipleship infrequently occurs, and individual growth in a given man is rarely, if ever, measured. Murrow’s example of Elmbrook Church’s systematic “spiritual fathering” model of discipleship of focused and intensive one-anothering is hardly the norm in the Megachurch, but is very much a model that more Megachurches should seek to emulate (pp. 216-217).

In summary, David Murrow’s book seeks to identify some cultural obstacles that make involvement in the local church difficult for men along with providing some suggestions for how to break free from the “gender gap” that exists in most churches. The theology of the book is in places thin (if not problematic), but overall,  there is much that can be learned through Morrow’s experience and research.

I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishing for this review.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Douglas Moo on Bible Translation

Douglas Moo, New Testament scholar from Wheaton Graduate School, recently spoke at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary on Bible translation. Moo is a member of the NIV translation committee. In this lecture he shares insights into the translation process of bringing the original languages of the Bible into modern English. It's worth a listen here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, by Heath Lambert

Book Review by Chris Haven

Having taken a number of biblical counseling courses in seminary through the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) and having read quite a bit of literature produced from biblical counseling figures like Powlison, Tripp, Welch, et al, I was highly anticipating receiving my advance copy from Crossway to read for this review. I was not disappointed.

The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams has six chapters. The first chapter focuses briefly on the history of “soul care.” Lambert points out that the care of souls was exclusively the domain of the church up through the mid nineteenth century, and for various reasons, the church gradually abdicated this activity to secular purveyors.  Jay Adams is then presented as the pioneer of the biblical counseling movement in the late 1960’s. Lambert shows his genuine appreciation for Adams in his groundbreaking work, while also making clear that Adams and his perspective were not without flaws. Adams' views on biblical counseling are defined as the “first generation” of biblical counseling.

In chapters two through five, Lambert shows how a “second generation” of biblical counselors, led by David Powlison of CCEF in the late 1980’s, “advanced” the movement in the specific areas of how biblical counselors think about counseling (chapter 2), how they do counseling (chapter 3), how they talk about counseling (chapter 4), and how they think about the Bible (chapter 5).  In the final chapter, Lambert sets forth his own proposal for an area where biblical counseling is still in need of further advancement.

Having read (and enjoyed) David Powlison’s recent book, The Biblical Counseling Movement (New Growth Press, 2010), I was not quite sure how this new book with a similar title would compare. After reading Lambert’s book, I realized that the two books, while dealing with a lot of similar information and history, were quite different. One of the advantages of Lambert’s book is that it could unapologetically identify David Powlison as the uncontested “second generation” leader of the biblical counseling movement in a way that Powlison could not do in his own book for obvious reasons. 

There are many virtues of this book. Let me provide just three. First, I greatly appreciated the clarity with which the advancements between first and second generation counselors were presented. Let me provide a synopsis of the advancements of the second generation proposed by Lambert:

  1. The making explicit that suffering (not just sin) is part of the counseling equation.
  2. A shift in emphasis on behavior (habits) to inner motivation (“idols of the heart”).
  3. A shift from rigid authoritarian counseling method to a paradigm of mutual position before God.
  4. A greater focus on empathy of a counselee’s situation.
  5. The development of an apologetic for biblical counseling with priorities of constructing a biblical model, confronting secular models, and considering what there is to learn from secular models.
  6. Significantly, Lambert shows quite convincingly in chapter five (contra author Eric Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care) that the first and second generation of biblical counselors have no disagreement as to the issue of the sufficiency of the Scriptures in counseling.  This chapter was extremely helpful in defining just what sufficiency really means (and does not mean). This chapter will hopefully be useful in identifying some of the “straw men” that Integrationists often put forward in opposition to the arguments for biblical sufficiency in the task of counseling/psychology.
Second, I admire the charity with which Lambert deals with those who are in the “first generation,” or outside the biblical counseling movement altogether. The prime example is his dealing with Adams, whom he portrays as a pioneer to be commended for his work, even while disagreeing with him in some measure and sometimes questioning his manner in dealing with those outside the his movement. Lambert views Adams as a Luther-like figure in church history, who, like Martin Luther, stood almost alone in advancing his views and in many ways was tremendously shaped by the theological battles he fought in the early days of the movement. Many of Adams’s weaknesses are presented as over-compensation resulting from his attempts to definitively distinguish himself from opposing viewpoints. 

Finally, the last chapter is worth the price of the book in my opinion. Having been reared in biblical counseling upon Powlison’s motivational theory, “idols of the heart,” I found it very exciting that Lambert attempted to dig even deeper into the biblical idolatry motif. Through some very sound exegesis, Lambert shows that at the very bottom of our motivation lies our longing "for the glory that is due to God. A heart that longs for this glory lusts after idols that provide it" (151). That is what idols were all about for people that constructed them in the Old Testament.  It is also at the root of the inordinate desires that the New Testament authors warn about. Lambert explains that this deeper level has not been completely unaddressed by biblical counselors, but is an example of an area that needs further development.

There are two minor things that might improve this book. First, it would have been helpful to include a one-page chart that would have summarized the advancements of the second generation of biblical counseling along with references to where such advancements were documented in the literature. Second, I would really have liked Lambert to provide some other examples of areas that still need further development in the biblical counseling movement beyond the one area he cites concerning "idols of the heart." Powlison often refers in his writing and speaking to a need for more “R&D” within the movement, but I have not seen a cataloging of areas in need of further advancement. Both of these deficiencies are minor in comparison to the great strengths of this book.

As both secular and Integrationist psychologies are proving to be foundationally bankrupt and proscriptively shallow, the biblical counseling movement provides a breath of fresh air and hope for hurting and imperfect people who need change. I heartily recommend this book to a broad readership, especially pastors, lay church leaders, and those in higher education.

I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing for this review.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Culture of Therapy

A recent Wall Street Journal article caught my attention with the title "Help Wanted: a Good Therapist." The image next to the title showed three separate pictures. The first picture featured a very sterile looking office with a stern faced therapist behind a hard wooden desk. The caption next to this first picture read, "Too Hard?". The second picture depicted two people sitting on cushions in eastern meditation poses. The caption here, "Too Soft?". The third picture showcased two people, smiling at one another, sitting in overstuffed chairs. The caption? You guessed it, "Just Right?".

In Goldie-Locks-esque fashion, the three pictures illustrated the main thrust of the article, namely, that there are different kinds of therapists for different kinds of people seeking therapy. The encouragement from the article is that "patients" should be proactive in interviewing and trying out various therapists and therapy styles and methods to determine which combinations are right for them. The article mentions three popular therapeutic approaches, among many others, that a therapy consumer could choose: the cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, and the psychoanalytical. Some therapists, the article goes on to say, are beginning to collaborate more with patients on developing treatment plans.

What is the Christian to think of the culture's fascination with therapists, therapeutic methods, and the desire to control treatment options? In his forthcoming book, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, Heath Lambert states that "counseling is the word our culture uses to describe what happens when people with questions, problems, and trouble have a conversation with someone they think has answers, solutions, and help." I think that captures well the longing that drives people to therapy, aka counseling. The article highlights the desire many people have to find someone with whom they can "converse." However, it also highlights the confusion that arises when the outcomes of therapy are left to the personal preferences of those seeking therapy. People naturally want to deal with their questions, problems and trouble on their own terms. When we pursue life on our own terms to the exclusion of God's standards, the Bible calls this "doing what is right in [our] own eyes" (Judges 17:6; 21:25).

The article also highlights the great diversity of approaches to identifying what a person's problem is and how to deal with it. As David Powlison writes in the Forward to The Biblical Counseling Movement, "There is something essentially autobiographical about every counseling model ever proposed.... Each counseling theory and practice reveals its author's core personal faith." Perhaps that is why there are roughly as many psychological theories and therapies as there are Hindu gods. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. In addition, followers of Freud, Jung, Rogers, and the like can be every bit as zealous for their founder's vision as the proverbial religious fundamentalist.

What quickly becomes apparent is that there is not really one single discipline called "Psychology," but rather hundreds of differing psychologies, each of which has its own theory of personality, change and counseling.

Let me propose what is increasing gaining momentum in the Christian world. It is the (correct, in my view) idea that the Scriptures teach what we might call a biblical psychology.  As David Powlison points out in his article, "Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)":
The Christian faith contains comprehensive internal resources to enable us to construct a Christian model of personality, change, and counseling. While the modern psychologies will stimulate and inform, they do not play a constitutive role in building a robust model. The operating premise of [this view] is that the Faith’s psychology offers a take on the human condition essentially different from any of the other contemporary psychologies. The living Christ working in his people through his Word is the engine producing depth of insight, accurate theory, and effective practice. The counseling that Christians do must orient to and take its cues from our own source. Practical theological development is the cutting edge. The modern psychologies and psychotherapies are relatively dull, shallow, and misleading in comparison.
This is exciting news for "people with questions, problems, and trouble." The person looking for help need not wade through the mire of one human opinion after another in seeking to discern if a particular theory or therapy "works" for them (whatever that means). The omniscient, omni-benevolent God of the Universe knows the human heart, the suffering of people, and the sin that so easily entangles. It is God the Son, Jesus Christ, who gives the call,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

Monday, October 24, 2011

An Objective Search for Truth

I recently had a discussion with an engineer friend of mine about whether a Christian can truly “do science” when his conclusions are predetermined based upon his faith commitments.

At the outset, I must confess. I am not a scientist. The closest I ever came to it was a semester of engineering in college when I took some college-level science and math courses. I knew I was in trouble when my mouse trap car got negative yardage in the mandatory mouse trap car race for first year engineering students. The advanced math class taught by a non-native English-speaking professor was the final nail in the coffin for a career in any of these related fields.

Fortunately, the question raised by my friend is actually not a scientific question at all. It is rather a question related to epistemology (how one comes to know something) and metaphics (what is ultimate reality).  Epistemology and metaphysics are two subject areas within the classic disciplines of philosophy, which are, thankfully, within the boundaries of my educational bailiwick. 

Often, science is pitted against Christianity as a bitter enemy. What is missed when the issue is framed as “Science v. Christianity” is that it is not actually science that is opposed to Christianity. History shows us that great scientific minds of the past, like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, operated within a Christian Worldview (CW) while at the same time being brilliant men of science. The real conflict is between Naturalism and Christianity. The “Naturalistic Worldview” (NW) asserts, a priori, that nothing outside the physical, or natural, world exists.

“Science” can be done through the lens of either the CW or the NW. The question that interests me as a non-scientist is this: “Does the NW provide the requisite preconditions for doing science?”  In other words, does the NW provide the necessary starting point to make possible the scientific enterprise which all scientists agree to be legitimate? When the NW is examined objectively, it fails the test.

The reality is that Naturalistic scientists have to operate on “borrow capital” (to use Cornelius Van Til’s terminology).  They function under the assumption of an ordered universe with predictable laws. They unquestionably trust their senses. They interpret and rely upon complex “information” that is undeniably encoded within living organism. They utilize the immaterial laws of logic in their hypotheses. And yet, under the NW, they have no such intellectual warrant for doing so. A Naturalistic universe would not lead to order, information, or predictability, but rather chaos, randomness, and unpredictability.

On the other hand, the CW does provide a basis for the scientific enterprise. There is a consistency for the scientist who is a Christian between his foundational beliefs (i.e., CW) and his scientific method used in the laboratory. He has answers for all the questions for which the Naturalist can provide no answers. Why is there an orderly universe upon which we can “do science”? Why can we generally trust our senses? Why is there information encoded in living things? Why can we utilize inductive and deductive reasoning to lead us to objective truth claims? The answer to all of these foundational questions is that a being outside of nature provided those preconditions for science. This is no “God in the gaps” hypothesis. For no matter how long the Naturalist searches for alternatives to supernatural provision, it is logically impossible for purely naturalistic processes to provide these requisite preconditions for science.So in the final analysis, perhaps the question should be posed: “Is the Naturalistic scientist being objective when she vigorously defends a worldview that undercuts the scientific enterprise at its root?”

In closing this post, let me place before us the reality that only God can bring a person from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (Eph. 2:1-10). He is ultimately the One who establishes the CW in the minds of believers. As John Calvin states:

The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his word, the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit therefore who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded...because until he illumines their minds, they ever waver among many doubts! –Institutes, I, vii, 4

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Healthy Numerical Church Growth

What does healthy numerical growth in a church look like? Dennis McCallum in his book, Organic Disciplemaking, examines the exceptional numerical growth of the early church:
The period from the death of Christ until the end of the first century was the most fruitful in the history of the church. During these few decades, Christianity spread clear across the Roman Empire and even penetrated deeper into Africa, the Parthian Empire, and India. The best estimates put the number of Christians at the end of first century at around 1 million. That’s an increase of 2000 times the number of Christians before Pentecost (perhaps 500). And all of this growth was facilitated by the process of discipleship. Without mass media, advertising, church buildings or seminaries, the primitive church expanded at a rate never equaled in the nineteen centuries (28).

McCallum then goes on to provide a helpful illustration of what I believe to be a healthy church growth model that happens through exponential multiplication:
Consider the following scenario: No one would feel bad about a church that could win fifty thousand people in two years. In fact, we know of no church that has down so well. And if they won an additional fifty thousand each two years thereafter, such a church could win 1.5 million people during a sixty-year period. Remarkable indeed! This would truly be a super church.
On the other hand, a single house church of thirty people, where the average member did nothing but win and disciple one other person during a two-year period would seem rather unremarkable. They would have a mere sixty people after two years, and would become two home churches. But if the original group and the new group both did the same thing during the following two years, and this process continued for the next sixty years, the result would be far more remarkable than that of the super church. In fact the duplicating group would have won 16 million people! They would, in fact, have out-performed the super church by more than ten times! Not only that, but within another twenty-five year, this duplicating group would have won every person on earth (28-29).

McCallum admits that these are not realistic numbers to actually achieve for a single local congregation. But the contrast is striking. What if we were to ask the Lord to allow us the opportunity for one such redemptive relationship over the next 24 months? This is a very realistic and, by God’s grace, achievable goal.  Will you take up the challenge?