Identity in Christ

I have believed for a long time that the essence of my ministry-- regardless of where it is or to whom-- is to teach people of the truth of the Gospel, our need for it, and its transforming power to give us new identities in Christ. My primary goal at Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church has been, and is, to focus on that.

Here is PCA pastor Tim Keller talking about that transformed identity, in a better way than I am able to explain it:


Update from Ridgehaven

All is well as we spend this week at Ridgehaven, the PCA’s camp and conference center in the mountains of North Carolina. I’m speaking for the Senior High group that is here-- about 40 campers-- and we’re also enjoying something close to a vacation at the same time.

So far, I’ve spoken twice; tonight, I’ll speak on the idea that we are saved by grace alone. During the course of the week, I’ll be presenting the essentials of reformation theology-- the “Solas”-- over the course of nine talks. I pray that these are useful for the Spirit to work truth into the hearts of these students.

Needless to say, I won’t be blogging much this week. If you don’t hear from me again, this is why!

Please pray for our trip to be both restful and a good ministry to those around us. See you soon...


Slow blogging these days-- mainly because I’m a little swamped with work. I’m getting ready to spend next week at Ridgehaven, where I’ll be speaking to a group of Sr. High students. It should be a great week-- Marcie and I have always enjoyed it when I’ve spoken there before-- but I have a good bit of prep to do for the nine times I’ll speak (all to the same group-- not repeating any of the material). So forgive me if the blog is quiet for this week and next; I’m focused.

Talk to you soon.

Quick thoughts on the Psalms

We’re just back from vacation, and as I wind down I thought I would throw out a couple of thoughts about the Psalms I had while driving home. These are motivated from things I saw and heard during our trip.

First, unlike the rest of Scripture the numbers don’t represent chapters; they represent the Psalms themselves. Thus, it is not correct to say, “I’ll read from Psalms 23, verse 2” because that would connote that you’re reading from chapter 23 of the Psalms. In fact, you are reading from Psalm #23, or simply Psalm 23 (note the lack of a plural “s” on the end). By the way, it’s the same in your hymnals: you aren’t turning to page so-and-so, but hymn # so-and-so.

Next: someone was telling me about what they do in their worship service (as far as readings go), and they said, “we have an Old Testament reading, a reading from Psalms, and a New Testament reading.” I’ve also heard before someone describing their devotional practice thusly: “I read a chapter from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Proverb, and a chapter from the New Testament daily.” Here’s the thing, folks: Psalms is a part of the Old Testament! (So is Proverbs, incidentally.) So it is redandant and unclear to say, “we have an Old Testament reading and a reading from the Psalms.” I assume that these are two separate readings; one from the Psalms and one from another part-- perhaps the historical books? Or the major or minor prophets? It’s great that your liturgy includes two Old Testament readings, and that there is a weekly reading from the Psalms. And it would also be helpful to more accurately describe the other reading. (If it sounds like I’m nit-picking, realize that this person said something about this several times in the conversation, leading me to believe that it wasn’t just a semantic mistake.)

Finally, the Psalms include a peculiar aspect that isn’t present anywhere else in Scripture: they have verses that aren’t numbered. At the beginning of many Psalms, there will be a comment that reads something like, “a Psalm of ascents” or “to be sung to the tune of ‘Doe of the morning’” or somesuch. These comments are part of the original text, and are a part of the inspired Scripture just like the rest of the verses. During my vacation I heard a sermon on one of the Psalms, and this pastor included this unnumbered verse in his reading; but I have heard many other people (including some pastors) read a Psalm in its entirety, only skipping over this opening comment. It’s part of the text! So it should be read and considered just like the rest of the text. (The numbers to the Psalms are NOT part of the original, inspired text.)

First wedding

My friend Paul commented that it has been a long time without a blog post-- right you are, Paul, and I do beg your forgiveness. What folks in my congregation know (but you blog readers of course have no way of knowing) is that I’ve been on vacation all week, having come to South Carolina to visit my family and friends and participate in a wedding.

In fact, we’ve just returned from the wedding a few moments ago (or from the reception, actually). My dear friend who was married today is someone I knew since before she was old enough to be in my youth group, and part of a family that considers me to be something of an adopted member. Her father, also a PCA pastor, and three other pastors-- including me-- officiated in the wedding today, so we tied the knot really tightly. Congratulations, Suzanna and Johnathan.

I’m delighted to report that my small part in the wedding went fine. I was asked to do the prayer of invocation only, which is an admittedly straightforward and fairly simple portion. Still, ever since seeing
Four Weddings and a Funeral I’ve been concerned that my first wedding-- or part of a wedding-- might possibly present similar problems. Not so today, so perhaps I’ve avoided the “first wedding jitters” or what-have-you.

And so, in honor of the bride and groom, Johnathan and Suzanna Stenbeck; in honor of my first wedding being behind me; and as an effort to apologize for not blogging this week; I offer you the following, for your viewing and laughing pleasure:


Discussing women and deacons

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Philadelphia Presbytery has submitted an overture to the PCA's General Assembly asking the GA to erect a study committee on Deaconesses. That overture has been echoed by the Western Canada Presbytery, and if I'm able to read this sort of thing at all, the committee will almost certainly be erected.

It may be needless to point out that this issue has caused quite a bit of stir and discussion. The PCA's own magazine,
byFaith, has posted a summary of the announcement of the overture and that has generated quite a bit of discussion in the comments. Other, less "official" sources have also hosted a significant amount of discussion as well. A good bit of the discussion is quite helpful, offering finer points and perspectives that would simply be impossible to gather were it not for this Internet/Information Age that we live in.

Sadly, a lot of the discussion has also deteriorated into mostly or totally unhelpful rant, name-calling, and fear-mongering. A few of the points of discussion may be summed up as follows:
  • "Scripture is clear on this matter (OR, arguing that Scripture isn't clear is a sign of our cultural liberalism and feminism)." The thought process here: because the NIV translates 1 Timothy 3:11 with reference to "their wives" instead of (the equally possible) "the women;" and because it translates "diakonos" Romans 16:1 as "servant" because it refers to a woman, then the issue is clearly settled. But who is to say that these translations are filled with cultural bias or the influence of a historical patriarchalism? Anyone who says, "Scripture is clear" has probably only been looking at English translations.

  • "The Book of Church Order (BCO) already prohibits ordaining women as Deacons." The line of thought here: The BCO is a finished, completed document that is utterly faithful to Scripture and never need be changed or amended to be brought closer to the Bible. This is difficult to reconcile with (common sense and) the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says, "All syonds or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both" (WCF 31.4).

  • "The word that is translated 'Deacon' in the Bible for men is obviously translated as 'servant' for women." Thought process: meaning changes substantially, even fundamentally, based solely on gender. This is an interesting foundational principle-- and one I'd like to hear more support for by other examples before accepting, which the arguers haven't provided.

  • "The Apostles' recognition of Phoebe, and other women in the New Testament, was a function of their cultural role-- something that doesn't apply to us." The appeal here is to the historical context, which of course is a fundamental principle in Bible interpretation. The problem is that these same folks will argue that historical context trumps literary context (or the language of the text itself-- see previous bullet) when Phoebe is mentioned, but when dealing with, say, 1 Timothy 3:11, quickly jump to the next argument...

  • "The historical context doesn't apply, since Paul was writing normative principles to Timothy about the qualifications for Deacons." Line of thought: somehow historical context is disposable for any normative portion of biblical text. The problem with that is that it would rule out the context of the deliverance and redemption of Israel out of Egyptian slavery as the setting for the 10 commandments, for example-- which most would agree poses some problems about a classic Reformed understanding of the 10 commandments.

  • "Allowing women as Deacons (even if the Bible permits it) will inevitably lead to handing over all authority in the church to women." The thinking here is a classic slippery slope notion: if one thing is bad or prohibited, then we dare not go near anything close to that thing. (This was a problem that the Pharisees often had, by the way...)

  • "Allowing women as Deacons is granting them authority and leadership that is unbibilcal." The thought trajectory in this argument is that Deacons have authority of the same sort that Elders have, and the Bible forbids women to have such authority. The problems here are rooted in the (mistaken and unbiblical) idea that Deacons are some kind of "Junior Elder" and therefore share in the role of authority with the Elders. But two problems immediately arise from this line of thought: first, the BCO itself defines the office of Deacon as "one of sympathy and service" (BCO 9.1) while it defines the Elder as office of exercising "government and discipline" (BCO 8.3)-- very different roles, one with clear distinction of authority and the other with, at best, less clear distinction. Secondly, the Deacons are "under the supervision and authority of the Session" (BCO 9.2), which begs the question: what authority do they have that, for example, a Sunday School teacher or WIC (Women in the Church) leader doesn't also have?

  • "We already have the WIC; what do we need women as Deacons for?" The idea here being that the WIC serves as a functional body of "Deaconesses" and we should simply let things remain as they are. Here again, there are two problems with this: first, Scripture does not define for us something like a WIC, and if we desire to pattern our bodies of leadership after Scripture then we should be careful about casually assuming that the WIC fulfills a role that Scripture defines for women. Secondly, and more importantly: the WIC is a ministry of leadership, structured specifically to minister to the women in the church; yet, the office of Deacon is broader than just women. Frankly, I learn a lot from women and have benefited from the ministry and teaching of many women-- and I find the suggestion that women should only minister to other women (and children) short-sighted.

  • "We ought to just do like ____ [insert name of a very large PCA church in the south] with the way they handle Deacon's assistants." I was surprised to see this argument made by more than one or two people. The thinking here: So-and-so has figured it out, and they should set the pace for all PCA churches. Again, problems arise: setting aside the very big assumption that the leadership there really has figured it out and has hit upon the perfect biblical solution, what does this have to do with what the BCO says about Deacons and women? But a closer look at the proposed practices reveals the truth: said PCA church's solution is to hire out the work of "serving tables" to outsiders (many of them unbelievers, all of them African-Americans).
I'm not convinced that blogs and discussion boards (mine included) are completely helpful in matters like these. It seems to me that folks are getting so entrenched in their positions, long before GA, that the possibility of healthy, profitable discussion on a study committee-- and even a good appointment of that committee-- is diminished.

I'm not decided about the matter. I've held back from my inclination to dig into the issue and study it to the point of deciding what my mind is about it-- though I'll take the time to do that before GA. But I am struck by this: most of the arguments against the study committee (summarized above) go against my logical inclinations-- committing fallacies and demonstrating inconsistency frequently-- and these weaken the case against a committee significantly. So I'm obviously in favor of erecting a study committee, even if I'm not decided on the issue of women as Deacons/Deaconesses.

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised that brothers and sisters in the PCA can't have a more constructive conversation about all of this. As much as anything, reading some of these discussions have caused me to grieve the lack of brotherly love and charitable grace within our denomination, and my heart has frequently been heavy about it over the past few weeks. Why is an overture to study ANY part of the BCO to consider if it is fully and truly based on Scripture so threatening?

One commenter (Scott Truax of Peace Presbyterian Church, Cary, NC) at the
byFaith page summed it up the best: "If we follow Scripture, we have nothing to fear."

Why a robe?

Now that I'm ordained, I'll start to wear a robe for worship. Some will inevitably wonder why... so I'd like to pre-emptively answer that publicly.

Why wear a robe? There are several reasons:
1. It fits our worship style. We have a fairly traditional worship style at Hickory Withe. It isn't stuff or overly formal, but it is traditional and a little bit "high church." A ministerial robe fits into this worship style well.
2. It serves as a sort of "uniform." Many professions have their uniforms-- doctors wear lab coats or scrubs, lawyers wear suits, Uniforms distinguish people in their particular roles. What is the uniform for pastoral ministry? Some would say it is a robe.
3. It fits a long-standing tradition. Not only have pastors, priests, and bishops worn robes for centuries, but many of the pastors of Hickory Withe have, too. I get to participate in a great heritage when I wear mine.
4. It eliminates concerns about wardrobe. With a robe, it removes the distractions and concerns of other wardrobe options. I'm not distracted by the fact that I have limited options, or whether my shirt is untucked, etc. My congregation isn't distracted by whether my tie is too loud or whether I'm wearing the same suit two weeks in a row.
5. I like it. I was given the generous gift of an ecclesiastical robe as a seminary graduation present, and I like it.

What sort of robe do I wear? Some would argue that the proper robe for a Presbyterian pastor to wear is a white one, also known as an alb. (As
Ken Collins said: "people in robes are dressed like Calvin. People in albs are dressed like Jesus.") Personally, I never saw a white robe on a pastor growing up in the south, and most Presbyterian Pastors I know who wear robes wear black ones.

On the other hand, I appreciate the (probably apocryphal) story of how John Calvin re-introduced the robe to worship in Geneva: his pulpit was drafty, and he was cold, so he grabbed his academic gown before leaving his study and wore it! What IS known is that Calvin established the practice of wearing robes for protestants, and wore an academic robe because he wasn't ordained.

In light of that (and because I love its simplicity), I asked for a Geneva Gown when picking out my robe. It is all black, with a plain, pleated front (no velvet bands as some black robes have). And I wear a stole with it, with appropriate colors, to mark the
liturgical season.

My new hero

I was briefly distracted this morning by our church's list of Pastors-- the succession of Pastors through the 173-year history of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church. If you haven't taken the time to look through this list, you should; it's a fascinating list of men.

I am the 28th Pastor of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church. Of the remaining 28, 22 of them served the church for less than five years, and three more served for right around five years. Only three Pastors in 172 years have served this church for more than five years.

One of these men is my new hero:
Pastor S. S. (Scott) Gill served Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church for 44 years, 2 and a half months, from 1861-1905. Noticing those dates, I'm struck by the fact that, in his first year of ministry, Rev. Gill would have begun shepherding his flock through the difficulties of four years of the War between the States. Following that, he pastored them for another 40 years-- a simply astounding tenure in our day, and from the looks of the aforementioned list, an impressive tenure in his day as well.

I heard mega-church Pastor Rick Warren comment recently that, in his preparation for ministry, he contacted the 100 largest churches in the U.S. and asked them, "what makes a church healthy?" (Whether you agree or disagree with Pastor Warren's choice of source for this information, I hope you'll agree it's an interesting perspective to pursue.) One thing emerged from them: in all of these churches, the Pastor had been there for a long time. Thus, Pastor Warren began to pray specifically about his pastoral call: "Lord, I'll go anywhere you want, as long as you take me there for life." He and his wife Kaye said that, when they went to plant Saddleback Church, they were 25 years old and made a 40-year commitment to that area.

Marcie and I have long hoped for the same thing: that we might move only once after seminary. While we're barely four months into this pastorate-- let alone 40 years or more!-- and I still face ordination trials (tomorrow, by the way), I'm renewed in my desire for that by the example of Scott Gill.

Why I am not an activist

There are a lot of great causes that I think are important. Be they social causes, political movements, efforts for promotion of ideas, many people are involved in many things that give value to our culture and world. Some of them are things that, in another life, I would be willing to step into and personally assign my name to, either in support or in opposition.

But I won't do it. Not now, and not as long as the Lord has called me to serve Him in pastoral ministry.

A Pastor is, by profession and function, something of a "face" for the church, especially his local congregation. In some cases this is taken way too far-- and in almost every case, it is something that Pastors must be diligent to keep in check. They are not the church, or even
in charge of the church, but they are the most prominent leaders in the church. And in many people's minds, they are the face that people think of when they think about the church. This is even more true outside of the church than it is inside it.

Thus, as a Pastor I
must not be an activist. Why? Because an activist puts a priority on something other than the centrality of the Gospel and the faithful teaching of Scripture.

This isn't always bad-- there are times when an issue needs to be the front-and-center concern, and the Gospel's relationship to it must be secondary in that discussion. There are issues of political or social change that the Scripture doesn't directly speak to, and those who try to make the discussion all about the Scriptural principle that indirectly relates only serve to muddy the waters.

(Let me make this disclaimer: I'm not saying that Scripture is insufficient to give guidance for godly thinking and living in all spheres of life; Scripture
IS sufficient for that. But Scripture isn't exhaustive in offering prescriptive conceptual thinking about all issues that face us today, and it is irresponsible to assert that it does.)

Some examples: while Scripture offers help in understanding the concept of just war, it doesn't directly speak to whether a particular war or military action is just. Scripture does discuss the stewardship of our world and environment, but it doesn't offer direct teaching about global warming. And although Scripture speaks to how a believer ought to behave in relation to his governmental officials, it doesn't address whether we should be in favor of states' rights over federalism.

And here's where the divide comes for me, as a Pastor: if my charge is to proclaim the truth of Scripture in season and out of season; if I am to preach, not myself, but Christ as Lord and myself as a servant; if I am to know nothing before my flock except Christ and Him crucified-- if these are what I am to be about, then I
MUST not be an activist. To take an activist position would be to turn my focus away from this charge.

If the church is charged with demonstrating the historical marks of the church-- Word, Sacrament, and discipline-- and only that, then a church must not assume a particular position on an activist cause. And I, as the Pastor and "face" of the church, must not do so either.

Scripture DOES teach a lot about how we might think about social and political issues, and over the course of my ministry (and even over the course of the next year or so) I will address these as they present themselves in Scripture. But I must stop short of waging judgment on particular political leaders, individual social causes, or specific political or social issues (and whether I agree or disagree with them).

I have opinions on them, and I'll even share
some of my observations at times. If I'm doing my job well, however, you'll walk away without certainty about what my exact political and social positions are. That is as it should be-- because I am not an activist, I am a Pastor.

Ministry, church, statistics, and the U.S. as a mission field

I overheard a young first-year seminary student talking with a couple of others in the bookstore a few years ago. He was talking about his sense of call to ministry, and they asked him if he wanted to be a Pastor when he finished. Yes, he did, but he quickly (and haughtily) clarified: "I'll go overseas to do missions, of course. The U.S. is way too full of churches and Pastors."

This video is a good presentation of a bunch of amazing statistics about the church in the U.S., and in a matter of minutes utterly refutes this young man's jaded viewpoint. (HWPC folks, may I ask that you be sure to take a few minutes to watch this?) What's clear from the data presented is that the local church has never held a more important place in the community, even if most of that community doesn't realize it.

While it is clear that the statistics are presented with an intent to promote church planting, they offer great insight into the mission and importance of established churches, as well. In my view, those figures regarding the established church's less effective outreach are simultaneously an indictment and a call to action.

What struck you as the more interesting aspects of that presentation?

A new series

I recently read a book on the nuts and bolts of pastoral ministry by two seasoned Pastors called On Being a Pastor. There were many great lessons from this book (thanks to my friend David Dennis for the book recommendation), and one key take-away was regarding preaching a series.

They commended the practice in general-- and affirmed its value to a congregation. But they also recommended that Pastors take regular breaks from a series, offering a change of pace and direction for a time.
One danger of expository preaching-- especially when we begin-- is the tendency to be too long in one book or subject. Expository does not need to be synonymous with exhaustive and exhausting!
We've been working through the book of Luke since I began at Hickory Withe. While we started with a brief (4-week) series on the Parable of the Lost Son, we've spent every Sunday morning in Luke since October 14! By mid-November, we started with Luke 1:1 and will finish chapter 3 on Sunday. We've studied the foundations of the book, the announcements of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, and the events of those births.

We're approaching a natural break in Luke-- in the middle of chapter 4, the end of Jesus' preparation for ministry concludes; starting with 4:14, Jesus begins his public ministry. Luke's account of the public ministry of Jesus continues until chapter 19, where the account of the triumphal entry begins the account of the passion of Christ. Clay Harrington will join us next week, and will preach on Luke 4:1-13-- the last text on Jesus' preparation for ministry. This will be our twelfth week of sermons in Luke, done in sequential order.

At that point, I plan to take a break from the sequential preaching of Luke's gospel, and will begin a new, 14-week series on the cross. This series will carry us through the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter, and is fitting for both. Following that series, we'll return to Luke to begin working through the public ministry of Jesus (though we'll probably take another break down the line before we finish that section of Luke!).

This series will be topical, though most or all of the sermons will still be expository sermons. Here's the plan for the series, week by week:
  1. The cross as central to Chrstianity
  2. What did Christ die for?
  3. The accomplishment of the cross
  4. How forgiveness works
  5. The price of our sin
  6. God's substitutionary atonement
  7. Salvation for sinners through the cross
  8. God revealing himself through the cross
  9. Evil is overcome through the cross
  10. The community of God as a celebration of the cross
  11. Understanding ourselves through the cross
  12. Self-denial and giving of ourselves in response to the cross
  13. The cross enables us to love our enemies
  14. The cross and our suffering, the cross and our glory

Ordination trials

Most of you may know, I was examined by the Covenant Presbytery credentials committee today, as one of the final steps toward completing ordination. I was approved by the committee, and will be recommended by them for ordination.
Thank you for your prayers and support through this process. The final two steps are the oral exam before the entire Presbytery (on February 5), and the ordination service (date TBA). I look forward to finishing out this process, as it allows me to serve Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church as Pastor.

Who's in charge here?

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.
~II Corintians 4:5

Yesterday at lunch, Jack asked me, "Daddy-- are you in charge of part of the church?"
What a profound question! I'm thrilled that Jack is asking questions like this, and thinking about these things. I wonder how many people have actually thought about this question...
Here's how the rest of the dialogue went (roughly!):
Me: "Jack, daddy's job is to be the Pastor at the church, which is not about being in charge, it's about serving them."
Jack: "What does 'serving them' mean?"
Me: "It means that I help them when they need help, I encourage them if they are sad, and I teach them about Jesus and how He is what they need."
Jack: "Sometimes it seems like you're in charge..."
Me: "Well, sometimes people act like they want me to be in charge; but when they act like that, what they really want is for me to teach them how Jesus is in charge."
Jack: "That's good."

Working on a book

If you've ever read my other blog, Placement Reflections, you may know that I started it as a repository for data, insights, and interaction with the research that I started in 2004 on pastoral placement. I initially did that research for personal reasons (e.g., I wanted to know how to place well!) but quickly became burdened for anyone who is going through a pastoral transition. As I've continued to study this subject, I'm convinced that I have developed some helpful nuts-and-bolts ideas about how to do pastoral transition well, from both the pastor's side and the church's.
At some point, I wondered if there might be a book-length project in this material, or even more than one.
I first posted about this idea in July 2006-- so it is something that has been percolating for a while. Since then, I've gone through different stages of prepping for that-- including copying all of my posts into a very useful writing application (and discovering that I had more than enough material already for a book-length project-- and also realizing that about half of the book had barely been discussed); drafting a book proposal; getting great feedback from a trusted friend and fellow writer that I should divide the material into two books; writing a grant (that was rejected) for additional research for my book; actually losing the final draft of my book proposal; and putting all of it (including the Placement Reflections blog) on indefinite hold as I transitioned into pastoral ministry.
Now, the time is right for me to pick it up again over the coming months. I think there are several reasons why the timing is good:
  • For starters, I've actually done the transition now, and I'm finishing up my examinations for ordination; Lord willing, I'll be ordained by mid-March. Since I first began to discuss doing a book, this has been the biggest hang-up for those who I've interacted with, and while I still believe that the research I've done could stand on its own in this regard, the added (and possibly fundamental) credibility of having actually done it means a lot.
  • Next, approaching the completion (hopefully!) of ordination means that a major item that has been on my plate is finished. I'm settling into ministry well, and the other consulting and side work I'm doing is also reaching a manageable pace. So I have the capacity, I think, to re-focus on this project. Worst case, I'll start up and then slow down again, but we'll see.
  • I'm eager to publish this material-- mainly because I really want to see men (and women) helped with their transition into ministry. Like I said above, I have a burdened heart for this.
  • Finally, my friend Craig is setting his sights on finishing his (latest) book up this year, too-- and I think it would be cool to go through that together. Maybe we'll covenant to pray for one another in that, or at least be good support; Craig has been a great encourager of my writing in general.
Since Placement Reflections has been a great tool for prepping the book up to now, I fully intend to continue using it that way. I'll develop new ideas there on different levels over the coming months. 

A ministry of prayer

The other day I was with a group of people who were talking about an especially legalistic environment that some of them had been a part of as teenagers-- a place where they were literally told what to believe, and that if they disagreed they would go to Hell. The leaders in this environment were, clearly, abusing their authority and making claims that no one person or group has a right to make.

One person commented on the fact that I should get a lot of sermon illustrations from these stories! (He was right...) That got me to thinking about what the real applications really were. I’d like to reflect on two broad applications here, over two posts.

At one point I asked the question of this group: how did your parents (who were all Christians) continue to believe that it was good for you to be a part of this? After all, I said, you would surely come home and tell them all about it.

Their first response demonstrated how powerful the authoritarian environment was:

No, we were told that if we reported on them we would go to Hell.

[Note, by the way, the similar nature of this environment to a classic abusive relationship-- where the victim is told that THEY (the victim) would get in trouble if they told.]

But as they went on, something else became clear. One of them said:

I was glad to be there. I needed a place where I could belong, and this place felt safe-- partly because of the rules.

And there I saw my first sermon illustration: when it comes down to it, we all gravitate toward legalism. We are all legalists.

When we’re offered an environment where the rules are known, it becomes very easy to settle into that. We know where we stand in the pecking order; we are then able to proclaim with confidence precisely why we have merited the favor of God and men.

I think this is what makes grace so threatening, so terrifying to all of us. If the work that earns us favor isn’t our work (through legalism) but Christ’s work imputed to us (by grace), we are actually dependent on something (grace) and someone (Christ) other than ourselves.

This also illustrates why even communities that are defined by Christ’s grace (namely, churches) quickly return to legalism. Dependence is very uncomfortable. Dependence is often humbling, sometimes awkward, and frequently at odds with pride. Someone who is dependent has just reason to lose some confidence in themselves.

Here’s the irony in it all: we are always dependent. Even when we think we have every reason for confidence (as with the group of teenagers who knew exactly their place in the social order of that legalistic community), we are still dependent on something: for the legalist, it is the rules and laws that we subscribe to, and the authority who creates and enforces them.

Legalism-- that idea that “I can earn merit/favor/righteousness through obedience, and take confidence and pride in myself”-- is a lie.