Thursday, February 15, 2018

Family

Next to the church, I submit that the family finds itself the target of the forces of evil.  If Satan hates the church, the family as an organization comes a close second in his rage.  We often think that he directs his animus toward believing families, but the truth is that every family suffers the pressures of dissolution.  The world, flesh, and devil devour families of every stripe.

This calls into question the predominant view of the family.  If the primary benefit of the family is the passing of virtues to the next generation, then we must question why the devil would desire the dissolution of families that follow his path.  Why would he want to hinder the passing of his own values to the next generation?  Here again, we must return to Genesis.  The institution of marriage and family originated with God.  Family is not a social or evolutionary construct, but a divine order, a structure hardcoded into our creation.  An attack on the family is an attack on God, the way he has made us.  The dissolution of the family takes from us a part of our humanity.

For this reason, understanding the family, as the Bible records it for us, matters.  We are born into families, and have responsibilities within those relationships that God appoints to us at every turn.  Here, the Westminster Shorter Catechism lays out for us the positions within the family that we ought to consider: superiors (parents), inferiors (children), and equals (siblings). (WSC 64)  Note, that in the equals category, we do not include spouses, not that we deny their equality, but we dealt with that relationship in the previous lesson.

We begin with the Biblical instruction that prompted the Westminster divines to give us these categories. In the Ten Commandments, the first commandment of the second table, that table that instructs us about our duty to our neighbor, begins with the family. "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." (Exodus 20:12)  This leads the catechism to conclude as follows. "The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals." (WSC 64)

The fifth commandment applies to the family at all times.  Its New Testament analog limits itself to children, but the fifth commandments broader command applies continuously through life.  We are born with a special emphasis of this commandment that Paul relates to us in Ephesians 6.  "Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right." (Ephesians 6:1)  Paul follows this command with a reference to the fifth commandment.  He understand that the fifth commandment has special meaning for children still in their parent's house.  Honoring their parents requires obedience.

We have previously commented on the concept of obedience "in the Lord."  It means, as unto Christ.  This has two aspects, a broadening and limiting aspect.  It broadens the command, reminding us of the gospel reality.  We are to obey as we would obey Jesus.  We are to remember what we owe in obedience to Jesus based upon the gospel, and live accordingly.  The limiting factor appears in the fact that our true allegiance lies with Christ.  He means more to us than any earthly parent.  We obey them because our ultimate authority has commanded us to obey.  Nevertheless, the subordinate authority cannot override the superior authority.  We must obey God rather than man.  Our parent's commands must be assumed lawful unless clearly against scripture.  Doubt ought be resolved in favor of obedience rather than rebellion.

While the duty of obedience last during childhood, the duty of honor lasts throughout life.  Honoring our parents takes a tricky place in later life.  It requires us to live in ways the bring honor to our parents, to give people a favorable impression about our family.  It does not mean that we must agree with our parents about every matter.  It does mean that we must treat our parents and their opinions that differ from our own with respect and grace.  There are even tragic events that break the parent-child relationship.  Abuse and neglect among the family tear at our heart and cause us to question how we fulfill the fifth commandment at this point.  Sometimes honoring our parents means living righteously without a relationship with one or both of our parents.

Honoring our parents also requires circumspect speech.  We need to be careful what we say about our parents to others.  This generally applies to the entire family as well, but the application of the fifth commandment makes it especially true of our parents.  That is why you regularly may hear me speak about the good things my parents taught me and nothing else.  You may think that my parents never did anything wrong, or else that I am naive about my parents.  Neither is true.  However, it is not beneficial nor honoring to broadcast these matters.  Occasions may arise when one must raise parental wrongdoing, but these should be done circumspectly.  The general rule is that the family is a unit, and fidelity to that family is part of the Christian ethic.

In terms of parental responsibility to the children, we have already addressed one of the largest responsibilities, that of education in a previous lesson.  We will not take time to retread that ground.  Nevertheless, the topic of disciple finds guidance in the Bible.   Paul continues his discussion of the family by turning his attention to the parents in Ephesians 6. "And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)  When I was a child, I memorized this verse and would quote it immediately after any would quote Ephesians 6:1.  I was a little contrarian.  While my motive and method left much to be desired, this verse does remind parents of their responsibility in the course of training.  Parents are to train and instruct their children in the Lord.  That is, they are to teach their children what to know and believe about God and they are to train their children how to live before God.

The Bible has some words to say about discipline.  One of my brother's favorite verses to quote demonstrates that contrarianism may be hereditary.  "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell." (Proverbs 23:13-14)  Western liberalism has challenged Christianity on many fronts, with some benefit.  It has forced the church to reflect on what is truly Christian and what we have kept from the old way of living.  We must answer liberalism from Scripture, stopping its errors with truth and not tradition.  The mounting pressure against corporal discipline challenges our traditional presumption, but cannot overcome the weight of Scripture.  The Bible clearly accepts as proper the use of corporal discipline. "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." (Proverbs 22:15) "The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame." (Proverbs 29:15)  "I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men." (I Samuel 7:14)

This is not all that must be said about discipline.  Discipline is a discernment matter.  That is, parents must use wisdom in the method and application of discipline.  Remember, the goal is training, not mere justice. (although parents may also teach justice through discipline as well)  Each child is different.  Each child learns differently.  Each child responds to discipline and methods of discipline differently.  Corporal discipline ought to be one tool in the parent's toolbox of training methods and not the only tool available or used.

This task is made manifest in Paul's command. "And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath."  Paul calls parents to use discernment so as not to wear out their children with discipline.  This again takes wisdom.  My father would often exasperate his children with his lessons.  He knew that even though we were grumbling, it was important for us to learn.  We didn't like going to school as children and often parents have to exasperate us in order for us to learn.  Learning to balance these duties involves wisdom and experience.

Among siblings, we must return to the general commands regarding kindness and love that proliferate the New Testament.  We note this here because maintaining good sibling relationships proves to be a great challenge.  My mother worked tirelessly to encourage her children to form positive relationships with each other.  I would generally say that the Lord blessed her efforts, but it was hard work.  It is easy for us to hate our enemies apart from us, but it is easier to despise those of our own family.  Our duty to preserve and promote the family requires all members to work at obtaining and maintaining positive relationships.

I must add to the end, a comment that rightly belongs at the beginning.  Christians, sensing the attack on the family can overreact, placing the family at a higher rank than it ought to occupy.  Again, we must remember the requirement of the First Commandment.  Family cannot replace God.  You cannot find in your family, the love, joy, and peace that only God in Christ gives freely.  Do not make your family your God. (In rewriting this series, I would add this caution to many previous topics: occupation, location, and relations)

Make no mistake.  The family is important and is under attack.  If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must labor to maintain the unity of our families.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Marriage

If I failed at dating, I have no experience at marriage.  This causes me to be very hesitant to advise on conduct within the marital relationship.  However, where we begin with implications regarding dating, we find firmer biblical footing with marriage.  We can rely upon firmer footing.  For this section, I use less experience, and more Bible.

In applying the law of God, we must begin with the first commandment.  "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." (Exodus 20:3)  We might miss this requirement in our desire to reach for the seventh, but the first, especially in the present situation of dating lends itself to questions of the First Commandment.  The romantic notion inherent in dating tends to tempt couples to seek in one another that which they are only to find in Jesus.  This may lead to two opposing results.  Some, finding their desires fulfilled may dote on their spouse, replacing Jesus in their affections with their spouse.  Others, disappointed in marriage will continue in their misery desperately seeking to find their satisfaction in their spouse.  Whether in fulfillment or in want, we face the temptation to replace Jesus with any human.

For the Seventh Commandment, not much must be said beyond the obvious.  "Thou shalt not commit adultery." (Exodus 20:14)  God requires faithfulness in our covenant relationships.  Nevertheless, the high incidence of adultery and emotional estrangement reminds us that we need this reminder.

For a foundation of relational morality, we begin with Ephesians 5:22-33.  We must remember that this passage appears in Paul's second half of the letter, the predominantly practical portion of the letter.  Having provided the indicative of the new life provided in Jesus, Paul calls us to a different kind of life, a different kind of marriage because we have all we need in Jesus.  With that principle, marriage becomes about what each spouse is to give rather than what each spouse expects to receive.

Here, we must first observe that Paul puts the person and work of Christ at the center of the marital relationship, as with all of life.  Again, we see how necessary it is to see the blessing of marriage as a reflection of the blessings we have in Christ rather than a blessing in addition to, or in replacement of Christ.  While there may be happiness in a marriage contracted outside of Christ, true joy comes from a marriage subordinated to one's relationship with Christ.

Paul begins with instructions to Christian wives. "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing."(Ephesians 5:22-24)  Subordinating the marital relationship to Christ points to the reality of submission within the marital relationship.

Many have called marriage a partnership.  This idea may be misleading if one has not dealt with the reality of legal partnerships.  As children, we thought of partnerships as 50-50 arrangements.  No intelligent partnership ever has this setup.  This would inevitably lead to gridlock.  One member of the partnership must break ties.  This reality applies in marriage as well.  As we submit to Christ, one member of this partnership must submit to the other.  Someone has to break ties.  In God's economy, He has chosen the wife to submit, and we may not dispute His decision.

Paul uses the model of Christ and the church as the basis for this imperative.  This model forms the justification for all of the directives regarding the marital relationship.

Notice the extent of the submission. ("in every thing" 5:24)  No exception is left for a lack of submission in any matter.  This does not give rise to the notion that the husband can command sin.  After all, this violates the First Commandment and the very foundational principle of the marital relationship being subordinate to Christ.  Our duty to God must take preeminence.  Nevertheless, the wide extent of submission requires wives to presume a husband's lawful decisions absent clear evidence to the contrary.

While this submission has been misused and abused, it still holds firm as God's design.  The command is not attached to a prerequisite that the husband do his duty outlined by Paul here.  Nor is the reverse true.  This demands that the wife find her moral ability in Christ rather than in her husband's obedience.

Even so, the picture improves as we see the way in which obedient spouses function together.  As the wife yields to the husband, the husband sacrifices himself for the good of his wife.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.(Ephesians 5:25-33)  
Notice the brevity of the instruction to the wife compared with the extended instruction to the husband.  I venture to say that the husband has either the harder duty or need more instruction in that duty.  Perhaps the hard headed male needs more particular instruction.  Perhaps it is the hard-hearted male that needs the constant reminder.

Notice that Paul uses the example of Christ and His church in two ways to direct husbands on what loving their wives looks like.  First, we note that he speaks of the sacrificing work of Christ for us.  This presents the most commonly discussed aspect of how the husband ought to act toward his wife.  In this principle, Paul indicates that the husband sacrifices his own self for the benefit of his wife.  One may almost suggest that only when the wife is fully satisfied in her station, may the husband consider his own desires.  This rule may not be pressed as an absolute, for the exigencies of life do not allow for such abstract and hypothetical practice.  Nevertheless, the direction of this theory does reflect the attitude necessary in Paul's instruction.  Christ died for the church, to make it holy, to do for it what it could not do for itself, to provide for it what it needed.  So also, should the husband for the wife.

Certainly, this simile has its limits.  When Paul talks about the sanctifying work of Christ for the church, there are hints of this in other of His writings (I Cor. 7:14), but the point here involves provision with a view to sanctification.  The husband cannot make the wife more like Christ.  He can only provide the resources needed for that goal.

This requires a broadening of the concept of what provision means.  It includes more that mere physical necessities, although those are absolutely required.  If Paul is speaking spiritually, then it also includes spiritual leadership in the marriage, the provision of the means of grace.  The husband should provide the wife the ministry of the word, sacraments and prayer.  Now, that doesn't mean that he must minister these things alone, any more that he is required to cook. (although he may)  Rather, it means he is to enable the wife to attend corporate worship.  He may also lead in the reading of the word and in prayer.

In addition, we may suggest that if the husband is to provide for the physical and spiritual good of the wife, might he also have a duty to provide for the intellectual and the emotional well-being of his wife?  We must be careful here, for these issues become murky very quickly.  At best, we can say that the husband should guard and cultivate the mind and heart of his wife.

Paul has something more to say about the example of Christ and His church that speaks to a motivational aspect.
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband. (Ephesians 5:28-33)  
Paul uses the concept of the church as the body of Christ.  As such, Paul equates this with the two becoming one flesh in marriage, quoting from Genesis 2:24. "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh." (Ephesians 5:31)  This provides a motivational and a practical guide.  As a motive, the husband should see his wife as part of him.  As he experiences a natural desire and urge to care for himself, he also should cultivate a habit of caring for his wife.  Part of this desire naturally occurs, but Paul's instruction indicates that the husband's habit of caring for his wife needs development by practice.  Husbands need the instruction that "He that loveth his wife loveth himself."  Husbands need the instruction to "love his wife even as himself."

Again, we ought to remind ourselves that the instructions to the husband are not dependent upon the wives obedience to the instruction to submit.  Husbands are to love regardless of a submissive wife.  Wives are to submit regardless of a loving husband.  The only way this works is if the husband or wife in this problematic situation finds his or her fulfillment, not in the marital relationship but in Christ.  Nevertheless, how beautiful the picture of husband and wife both obedient to God's arrangement of marriage.

We find additional instructions in the same area in I Peter 3:1-7.
Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement. Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
Here, the amount of instruction is reversed.  We may speculate that Peter is dealing with a different issue in the church than Paul.  Nevertheless, there is a tangent within this passage that does not directly deal with the topic of husbands and wives. (I Peter 3:3-5)  In this central section, we see a synthesis of ideas found elsewhere.  Notably I Cor. 7:12-16.
But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?
We may safely assume that Peter knew of Paul's writings.  "And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction." (II Peter 3:15-16)

This tangent is connected with the instruction of submission.  The message is that the unbelieving spouse is more prone to believe the gospel by the wife's submissive and godly attitude, than with her superficial beauty, fine clothes, or jewelry.  This command is directed primarily to wives of unbelieving husbands. "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives."(I Peter 3:1)  This reminds us again that a disobedient spouse does not exempt us from our duty in marriage.

Finally, Peter speaks to husbands. "Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered." (I Peter 3:7)  The duty to love is not dependent on the wife telling the husband what she needs.  The husband has an obligation to find it out.  If you are to live with your wife according to knowledge, it follows that you have a duty to learn your wife.  This does not give place for the "delightful" game of "there's-something-wrong-and-you-have-to-figure-it-out."  The wife should let the husband know if there is a problem.  However, the husband should also make an effort to understand his wife.

There is one final matter that the Bible speaks clearly about.  It is one that I hesitate to describe for lack of knowledge and an interest in discretion.  The author of Hebrews reminds us, "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge." (13:4)

Paul writes, "Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.  The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.  Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency." (I Cor. 7:3-5)

Some commentators argue that The Song of Solomon was originally  a celebration of the physical joy in marriage created by God and, in the New Testament, sanctified in Christ.  We proclaim to the rafters, to everyone who will hear, and even to those exhausted of hearing, that any sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman is sin, no matter what letter you assign it.  We do poorer job reminding married people what the Bible says about the blessing of sexual activity within marriage.

With our society's preoccupation with all forms of sexual deviancy, we are tempted to become jaded about the beauty of marriage.  If spouses are to live Christian in an unchristian world, let me suggests something to read together.  Perhaps you think it Ephesians 5.  No.  Most of the time we read it thinking about where our spouse has gone wrong rather than where we have gone wrong.  No, perhaps it's time to rekindle the romance.  Perhaps it's time to pick up and read the Song of Solomon.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Dating

I am an absolute failure at dating.  This is not an attempt at false modesty.  My present singleness testifies my total lack of talent and success in this area.  My past includes failed relationships and missed opportunities.  In my darker moments, I long for the days of arranged marriage.  With that system, you see a girl, find her father and arrange a price.  Done.

Some people who share my thinking have tried to bring back this historic method of contracting marriages with mixed results.  My advice to them, "Forget it."  Even if you could arrange a return in some limited way, the society surrounding us so influences our mentality that the romantic ideal would make people in arranged marriages miserable.  Western culture finds itself saturated in romanticism.  Our language, media, law, and society all echo to the ballad.  The only alternative would be an escape from the culture.  If you lived in countries with arranged marriages, or formed a commune, it might work, but one requires you to be a missionary, and the other violates other instructions in God's Word.

So what is a failure like me doing trying to teach about the topic?  Can I have anything productive to say on this issue.  I think so for two reasons.  First, the instructions in the Bible stand even if they don't result the way we would like them to turn out.  There are instructions in the Bible that provide guidance to us in these matters.  They remain true and wise even if they do not result in the outcome we prefer.

Second, you can learn a lot from failure.  Failure teaches you what not to do.  Battle scars tell the story of experience.  Experience may teach, if only we have the wisdom to learn from it.  All too often we fail to learn from failure.  I confess that what I have to say comes at a price, and I cannot presume that I have fully learned from failure.  All I can say is that I am still learning from the past.

First things first, dating is not in the Bible.  If you are looking for the biblical way of forming relationships that lead to marriage, the Bible gives us a diverse examples of the arrangement of marriages.  This means, that the mechanics leading to marriage matter little compared to the morals practiced by the participants.

It might help counter or romantic prejudice to look at examples of how marriages were formed in the Bible.  These we can examine in three groups: those found in the narrative and probably not probably not normative, those found in the narrative and potentially normative in some way, and those found in the law.

For those found in the narrative and probably not normative, we consider the breadth of the manner, the various ways that marriages were accomplished in the OT.  Most of the formalities that became normal did not exist in this distant past.  For this group, we pass over most of the patriarchs, and perhaps consider best the rather obscure story about the tribe of Benjamin in the book of Judges.  In chapter 19, the author reminds us of the dire situation in Israel, no king, every man his own ruler.  The depravity of this situation is revealed as a Levite and his concubine, who had left him, travel through Ephraim and arrive at a city inhabited by Benjamites.  While there, a repeat of the events at Sodom occur, leading to the molestation and death of the concubine.  The Levite takes the corpse home, splits it into twelve pieces and sends her throughout Israel to call for retribution.

In chapter 20, Israel comes together against the tribe of Benjamin.  Eventually, the tribe is smitten.  The chapter indicates that Israel destroys the entire tribe but for 600 men that hide out in the wilderness rock called Rimmon. (20:47-48)  This sets the stage for chapter 21, which begins with a flashback to before the war.  Then, Israel had sworn never to marry with Benjamin.  This posed a problem.  600 men remained alone of Benjamin, but could have no future place with Israel, as marrying outside would exclude them from Israel.

What would Israel do to provide Benjamin with wives? (21:16-25)  The Romans would have a similar story in the abduction of the women of Sabine.  This would later be made into a musical called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  We cannot consider this manner of finding a spouse normative.

Another such story appears in the story of Esther.  The story begins with the marital conflict between King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti.  This leads to the exile of the Queen and the necessity of another Queen. (2:1-4)  It was perhaps the earliest form of the modern reality show, the Bachelor.

For narratives that perhaps we can find some normative concepts, we add the story of Rebecca and Isaac. (Genesis 24)  The fact that God apparently works at the well to send Abraham's servant to Rebecca indicates some divine approval of this union.  Ruth's bold approach toward Boaz, ought be seen as commendable for the twin reasons that Boaz calls her a "virtuous woman" (following Prov.31 in the Hebrew order of the OT) and she is included in the genealogy of Jesus. (Ruth 3; Matthew 1:5)

For the last group, the manner the OT law directs, we must begin by placing this in the right type of law.  This is the civil law, that which extinguished at the end of Israel as a theocratic nation, but may apply as far as its equity may require.  Exodus 22:16-17 "And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.  If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins."  Deuteronomy 22:28-29 "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days."  We cannot think of this as normative, or advisable as an way of forming marriages, but it does counter our accepted mindset, we often credit to scripture, but has more to do with victorian morality.

When we think about dating, we ought to remember that it's primary purpose is marriage.  I have already referred to it a number of times as a method by with marital relations are formed.  Dating is a process, and at the end of that process ought to be marriage.

For this reason, we ought to define some terms.  One of the key challenges to the dating process is the lack of definition.  In fact, it has been my experience that people don't want definitions in this process.  There is a feeling that definitions rob the participants of the mystique, mystery, and fun of the process.  Unfortunately, that same ambiguous relationship can also lead to sinful behaviors.  It also can produce much confusion and pain as the participants inevitably differ on their perception of the progress of the relationship.

What does a man mean when he asks a woman to dinner?  The problem with answering this question is that I can give you a wise answer, but one that probably doesn't exist in most minds.  Most men will think on some part of a spectrum between, "I'm lonely and would like another human to eat with and this is another human," and "This is my future wife."  We might safely assume that there is an element of attraction and desire to get to know the woman better.

For me, I get involved in a mind trap game.  I often cater my behavior according to how I perceive it will be perceived by others.  Basically, I ask how I think, they think, that I think.  This kind of "I know, that you know, that I know" thinking runs in circles without stopping.

From this, I conclude that dating as a process of forming relationships that lead to marriage arose from a generation of intellectually averse people, or at least people who don't think like me.  It may not have been a failure to think or an inability to think, but rather a preference for emotion over thought; a generation averse to emotional definitions, a generation who prefer feeling to thinking.  There is a reason why Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers asked the question, "Why do fools fall in love?" (1956)  I think they understood, or at least their writers considered falling in love the absence of sense and intellect, perhaps of wisdom.  This is not a criticism, but an observation.  This mentality is woven so tightly into the culture, that we think this normative without criticism.

Christian writers during the "free love" movement of the 60s and 70s and onward have been so shocked by the fruits of this thinking, that they have tried to reverse the culture without avail.  They were attacking the method they themselves used to form their positive marriages.  You cannot attack the pillar upon which you stand without care or catastrophe.  The most significant salvo in the past thirty years was probably best expressed in Joshua Harris' book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  Ironically, Mr. Harris has retreated somewhat from this book.

This attack has had a deleterious affect on Christian youth.  We have made young people scared.  I remember reading an article in World Magazine a few years back where they remarked about this very thing.  Christian singles are scared of marriage, making the wrong choice, and overthinking their initial steps.  It's not that their relationships are failing, its that they are not even trying.  They are too scared to take the first steps toward any type of relationship.

I'm going to say something I really don't like.  A conclusion that I have reached after much soul-searching.  It is something that I think corrects the presumptions present in Christian society.  In order to wisely survive dating, you have to not think.  You have to not ask, "how will this be perceived?"  You have to just act on feeling.  You have to give in to the folly...

..for the first date.  On the second, the wisdom must come back, but we will get there in a bit.  I hate this reality, but I can see no other course.  It really bothers me how I see so many excellent single men and women who stay single, scared, alone, and miserable.  I have to imagine, that what I see in my experiences, also has some bearing on what others experience.  We have been so often cautioned about the dangers of "giving your heart" to the wrong person that we have turtled.  So, I say, don't ask all those pesky emotional/relationship inventory questions, before or on the first date.

Later, think.  It may be the second, third, or fourth date, but soon, you have to answer the question if this relationship is going somewhere.  If you intend to progress the relationship past the initial stage, it's time to think about the reality of what you are doing.  I think it relatively safe to leave this calculus for the second date.  I think it rather unlikely that major emotional damage would occur if the relationship terminates after one date.  Mileage will differ in some respects, but the alternative is rather more objectionable.

Let me also suggest a first date criteria.  Ask/accept any evangelical Christian who asks.  Consider Roman Catholics.  Reject anyone with a false idea of who Christ is or who rejects the gospel altogether.  You have no business even starting the process with those who do not share your commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I will add this.  If she is a Christian woman, ask.  If he is a Christian guy, accept, if he doesn't weird you out.  We need to conquer the initial fear.

To continue the relationship, the brain must run back into the driver's seat.  At that point, you know that this relationship is proceeding down a path, and must exercise wisdom in deciding whether you want to go down that road.  For this analysis, many factors may be considered.  Acres of forests have given their lives for the books written on these subjects.  I don't think it efficient to rehearse them here.  I will say that the most important involve spiritual agreement and family organization.

For the actual conduct during the dating relationship, much has also already been written and said.  During each of my years in college, I could expect the same event at the end of every fall semester.  Officially, the administration titled the event, "split chapel."  To the students, it possessed a completely different name.  We knew that the content of the chapel involved dire warnings against sexual immorality during the Christmas break.  Why these warnings were not repeated for the summer, still remains a bit of mystery to me.  For most of we students, the event meant an opportunity to catch the speaker in a plethora of verbal faux pas.  We considered it a colossal waste of time.  Having grown up in the church, we had heard innumerable such warnings, and these added nothing to what we already did not know.

Therefor, I must ask pardon for yet another reminder.  The present reality, the ever increasing laxity toward the biblical directive tells us that these warnings are still relevant.  The author of Hebrews reminds us, "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge." (13:4)  The Seventh commandment forbids any sexual activity outside marriage.

In aid of keeping this commandment, some have added prohibitions on conduct between the genders.  Some have ignorantly used Paul's word to the church at Corinth as a guide. "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman." (I Cor.7:1)  The absolute prohibition of touching finds no justification in this verse or in any other teaching of Scripture.  While I shall not start drawing arbitrary lines for conduct, care, discernment, and discretion ought characterize our behavior in the dating relationship.

How we go about forming the relationships that lead to marriage  matters.  It, as all other human activities, demonstrates our character.  It provides another opportunity for us to glorify God through our activities.  (I Cor.6:20)  It matters how we conduct ourselves in order that we may live Christian in an unchristian world.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Friendship

My best friend in college told me why we were great friends.  He said that friendship rested on economics, that we used one another for what the other had.  That didn't explain the most memorable times of our friendship.  Riding along Scenic Highway, listening to "music" and enjoying the view of Escambia Bay.  Struggling with Suite issues.  Sailing in a catamaran on Perdido Bay.

One of my favorite memories was a trip to Olive Garden.  We had issues with the food from the campus cafeteria, so often we would enjoy a meal off campus.  We would swap between Olive Garden and Red Lobster.  On this occasion, we began to notice that our waiter was not as attentive to our needs as one would had preferred.  So, we organized a game.  We began with our customary tip, the standard rate of 15%.  We agreed that anything he did exceptional would add to his tip, and any infraction of expected service would decrease it.  Every time he didn't refill our drink when empty cost him dollar.  Every time he walked past and didn't check on us cost him fifty cents.  We kept making deductions for other infractions, some impromptu, others regimented, and at the end, he owed us five dollars, meal included.  We had a wonderful time.

Man was made for companionship. We don't pass the second chapter of the Bible without this fact plainly revealed to us by God.  The creation of woman was more than the invention of binary reproduction.  It signaled something about being made in God's image.  The triune nature of God indicates that even in the godhead, there is relationship and companionship.  Since we are made in His image, we share that need of companionship and community.

Unfortunately, all that God made for good, sin has corrupted.  our natural and good need for fellowship drives many to form detrimental connections and relationships.  The Bible cautions us to take seriously the matter for friendship and form relationships that edify rather than corrupt.

The Biblical examples of friends are quite numerous.  It was Judah's friend that "helped" him through the death of his wife. (Gen.38)  Moses spoke to God as to a friend. (Ex. 33:11)  Haman's friends helped him celebrate the gallows made for Mordecai. (Esther 5-6)  Jobs friends did their best when they remained silent for seven days and nights. (Job 2:13)  The Psalmist talks about the friend who turns on you. (Ps.41:9)  This prophecy finds its fulfillment as Jesus calls Judas "friend."  (Matt.26:50)

The classic example of Biblical friends appears in the story of David and Jonathan.
And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house.  Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.  And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. (I Samuel 18:1-4)
This is the example of what friends are to be.  It is deplorable that this relationship has been used by some to justify homosexual sin.  It completely defaces the wonderful picture of friendship.  In this picture, Jonathan puts truth to the friendship reality that whatever he owned was at David's disposal.

The choice of friends matters.  When I talk about this issue, I am particularly referring to close friends.  We allow people in our lives at different stages of closeness.  Some people barely know us at all.  Some get to know our souls.  In choosing friends, I refer to the latter and not the former.  Nevertheless, even those with whom we regularly associate have an impact on our mindset.  Peer pressure increases by quantity as well as quality.  We should choose our close friends carefully while having a broad acquaintanceship.  Even so, we must remember that even our acquaintances have an impact on us.

Before we discuss choosing friends, there must be a choice to make.  The AV translates Proverbs 18:24 as, "A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother."  More modern translations follow some variant observed in the ESV, "A man of many companions may come to ruin,but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."  The reason for this disparity is that the AV follows Greek manuscripts, presumably because the Hebrew is open to interpretation.  The verb and the word for "friend" use the same root.  It could be a play on words or a unique use of the verb.  The AV translators relied on an older interpretation than their own.  Nevertheless, the principle rings true.  Those who would have friends must present themselves as open to people.  Solomon also writes. "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." (Prov. 17:17)  If we would have this kind of person in our lives, we must be this kind of person.

In choosing friends, we are not free to imagine we live without the need of friends. Solomon in Ecclesiastes reminds us of the necessity of friends.
Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.  There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.  Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.  For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.  Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?  And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.  Ecclesiastes 4:7-12
In this passage, Solomon reminds us that life is futile without people in our lives.  We need people is only just to watch our backs.

The main biblical exhortation regarding our choice of friends has more to do with spiritual considerations rather than anything else.  "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (II Cor.6:14)  Paul does not intend that we have no friends with unbelievers.  After all, he encourages the church to have relationships with unbelievers. "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world." (I Cor. 5:9-10)  Paul understands the need to associate with unbelievers in this world, but he warns against a willful choice to associate closely with unbelievers.  This "yoking" indicates a close friendship.  This type of relationship should only be formed with those who share the faith.

Paul's reason for this warning comes from the reality that close friends advise one another.  The unbeliever advises out of a totally different worldview than the believer.  The substance of their advice will often conflict with what the Bible commands.  The absence of the gospel reality within cannot be ignored.  We make light of the gospel if we think we can form close friendships with those who do not have this reality within.  Either we don't think that the gospel transforms and affects all of life, or it has not truly changed us.

While we must form relationships that include this unity of spirit, we ought to beware of the tendency to form relationships with people identical to us.  Diversity is a healthy thing in personal relationships.  Forced diversity has become a socially desirable practice.  The Bible does not suggest it.  Rather, the diversity of gifts within the church reminds us that understanding the wide scope of the church suggests a broad array of friends.  It is amazing to me how diverse God's people are.  This is seen in our own church.

Friendship takes work, and diversity often requires the most work.  Our differences become the source of friction, but our similarities can be the catalyst that escalates minor differences into major arguments.  Is it any wonder in the church, the diversity and unity combine to encourage Paul to direct the church in its relationship with one another. "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you." (Eph. 4:32)  It is informative that this verse appears at the end of a chapter the began with the diverse gifts that God gave to the church to edify it.  That which God gives to edify, man can distort to view as detrimental.

My mother always reminds her children, when we would fight each other, something along the lines of, "friends come, and friends go, but family is forever."  Perhaps forever is a bit strong, but it has proven rather effective.  Many families disintegrate.  Even my parent's siblings struggle to remain together.  The modern society and it freedom of transportation has allowed children to leave, but they have not often used that freedom to return.  Thanks to the influence of my mother, we enjoy being with one another, even we live so far apart from one another.

My mother was right and wrong.  Friends and family come and go.  For some, the fear of losing someone places a real psychological barrier to making friends.  Why make friends if they go away?  It makes as much sense as why live, if you are going to die.  Friendship matters.  Relationships matter.  Forming them well requires wisdom and discernment, so that we may fulfill God's calling upon our lives.  In this way, we may live Christian in an unchristian world.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Communication

Proverbs 26:4-5 "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.  Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."  Christianity rests on communication.  God spoke the world into being.  God spoke in revelation to man.  God expects Christians to communicate well.  For us, communication depends upon us, the speaker, not upon the listener.

Regularly topping the charts as the biggest fear people have is the fear of public speaking.  Standing in front of a group of people and trying to communicate is a daunting task.  As a pastor, it is one that I wrestle with every week.

From infancy, we struggle trying to communicate. We begin by communicating critical wants.  The infant cries, communicating that it needs cleaning, feeding, or caring, and it's up to the parent to discover which.  The toddler learns to speak and learns which need and which sound to make to the parent to get their needs met.  Then parroting begins.  Complex emotions are simplified.  The toddler learns to describe the feeling toward its parents as "love".  Does it understand love?  Probably not, but it communicates in this way regardless.  Information gathering begins as the child discovers how to navigate the world.  We train people in receiving and disseminating information in reading and writing.  Eventually, we expect them to effectively communicate, to add to the conversation.  Communication is a learned skill.

Communication method differs depending upon the situation.  We talk to a crowd of one thousand different than a crowd of fifty, different than a group of ten, different than speaking to one other person.  Even in discussions with a single person, our relationship and history with that person governs the method of communication.

In all these encounters, the Bible gives us factors to consider as we govern our communication.  It tells us what to communicate and how to communicate.  The Bible even gives us a short-hand phrase to express its requirements.  Paul writes, "But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ." (Ephesians 4:15)  This verse appears in the context of the apostle describing the spiritual gifts that God gives the church in Jesus and the purpose for which those gifts were given.  God gives spiritual gifts for the purpose of building up the church, the body of Christ.  This strengthens the individuals within the church, the members to engage also in the building of the church.  Each member speaks the truth in love for the purpose of building the church, edifying other members of the church.

This verse gives us the what and how of our communication.  What are we to speak? We are to speak the truth.  How are we to speak?  We are to speak in love.  Let us look at each in turn.

Speaking the Truth

The importance of truth-telling appears early on in the Bible.  Jesus says, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it." (John 8:44)  Let's leave for later the purpose of Jesus statement and look at the historic comment.  Jesus speaks of the devil as a liar from the first.  He takes us back to Genesis 3.  "And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4-5)  The devil through the serpent lies.  He says something that is not true and sets himself against the truth telling God.

This lie produces conflict and hiding.  That conflict erupts into murder as Cain kills Abel and then lies to God about it. "And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Genesis 4:9)  Cain, the first seed of the woman, shows himself to be the seed of the serpent, doing serpent things.

We need not elaborate on Abraham's lie to Pharaoh about Sarah  (Genesis 12) or Isaac's similar action (Genesis 26).  We well remember Jacob's lie about being Esau (Genesis 27) and his sons lying to him about Joseph (Genesis 37)  Even God's people have a problem with telling the truth.

This all comes to a head when the Lord appears upon Mt. Sinai and codifies the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the "ten words."  "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Exodus 20:16)  Although directed at truth in justice, the application of this commandment goes further.  In the seven things the Lord hates, truth-telling is mentioned twice. "These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren." (Proverbs 6:16-19)  Notice that a lying tongue is separate from a false witness.  We also should note the purpose of truth telling as apart from the last sin, the promotion of disunity among those united in Christ.  From this, we learn that our speech ought to exclusively communicate truth.

Let us consider some socially acceptable exceptions.  The first we call "white lies."  This refers to socially acceptable falsehoods we tell not to hurt the feelings of others.  While we may find the motive admirable, it cannot overcome the evil of falsehood.  Let us not engage in casuistry, where doubt is cast whether people ought reasonably expect the truth in these situations and address the true problem.  Our resort to falsehood usually arises from our unwillingness to take the time and effort to express the truth well in a particular situation.

Let us take the oft-used example, "Does this shirt make me look look fat?"  To answer in the negative unreservedly is not in accord with the truth.  In actuality, the question focuses our attention to the garment and not the individual.  The individual ought be affirmed in his acceptance by God and us as they are.  The garment may be critiqued for not best expressing the glory of God in the individual.

Another socially acceptable exception is deceptive speech, where we have not spoken falsehood, but we have spoken in a way that encourages people in thinking or believing something that is not true.  This rests on the false division between speaking and communicating.  Even when we aren't speaking, we are still communicating.  By encouraging people to think or believe a lie, we are communicating untruth.

As we consider these issues, we ought to distance ourselves from the puritan rejection of fiction in literature.  They saw these stories as violations of the Ninth Commandment since these stories of things than never happened.  Nevertheless, we understand that these stories communicate truth through the narrative even if the events of the story never occurred.  These stories have truth content from which we can benefit.  They follow in the steps of the parables.  Few readers of the New Testament consider that all the parables were true stories.  They were tales told to make a true point.

We are to speak to truth.  We are to speak only the truth.  Having committed to this principle firmly, we turn to the manner in which we are to tell the truth.

Speaking in Love

One of the most uncomfortable experiences in seminary occurred in the course "Pastoral Counseling."  It was divided between the theological faculty and the counseling faculty.  The counseling faculty held to a philosophical commitment that I did not share.  Nevertheless, you can learn from people with whom you disagree.  In one exercise, they attempted to help us learn to communicate.  They had us tell each other a life story and then you had to echo back what you heard.  This exercise was aimed at encouraging us to listen and learn how to express what we heard.  It was incredibly uncomfortable and didn't really help in skill acquisition.

It did represent a biblical truth. James writes, "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." (James 1:19-20)  James gives the church this direction following his description of the grace of God for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In light of what Jesus did for us, we ought to adopt this way of communicating.  Because Jesus listens to us, were are to listen to others.

Listening precedes effective communication.  Practically, listening should have come first in our examination of communication.  It governs how we communicate.  You cannot communicate effectively without first listening.  You have to understand what makes a person tick, what language they speak.  We have a problem in assuming that just because someone speaks English that they use words the same way that we do.  We struggle with assuming that others think the same way that we do.  People are different.  It is our responsibility to understand them.  We ought not expect them to understand us.

Listening immediately gives you an opportunity to be heard.  I've heard it referred to as relational capital.  People understand reciprocity, that if you listen to them, they also ought to listen to you.  In addition, this world is filled with speakers and very few listeners.  We are so attention starved that a like on our Facebook post, or picture of our lunch makes people feel affirmed.  This isn't listening.

People will take a Facebook like as a poor substitute for true listening, but it is listening that they want.  They want someone who listens to them, who knows them, who knows the core of who they are, and still accepts and affirms them.  Naturally, the one they want is Jesus, and seek poor excuses for Him, but we in imitating Him, ought also to imitate Him in our listening and communicating.

Our goal in listening, then, is to put ourselves in their mind.  We need to think their thoughts, to understand their point of view.  We need to consider why certain thing are important to them even if they are not important to us.  We need to consider how they differ from us.  Even when we disagree with their conclusions, we ought to affirm their concern while encouraging them to think differently.

James also reminds us that not every discussion is one in which we ought to be involved.  Being slow to speak may mean not speaking at all.  Remember Jesus statement to the Jews about their father, the devil.  Even as he does this in a dialogue to encourage one group to think biblically, He also suggests that another course might need to occur.  "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." (Matthew 7:6)  This verse appears in the context of correcting another.  Jesus warns the people to cast out the beam in your own eye before trying to address the speck in your brother's eye.  Then he bring up this swine metaphor.  In context, Jesus says that there are some who will not listen even if you have previously cast out your own beam.  It then is not wise to try to correct them.

There is a balancing test to answer for this matter.  Should I speak?  You must balance the importance of the matter with the likelihood of the person listening to you.  For instance, often the church in judgment must admonish those who it knows will not listen.  Nevertheless, they must speak for the peace, purity, and correction of the church. (I Corinthians 5)  A minor matter might find a listening ear and thus warrant discussing.  Deciding when to speak requires discernment and wisdom.  We ought to ask ourselves, "Should I talk?" and in retrospect, "Should I have talked?"

Having chosen to speak, we must then decide how to speak.  Hopefully, our time spent listening will guide us to effective communication.  We ought to ask, "How can I express this idea," or, "encourage this way of thinking, in a way that this person will understand?"  In retrospect, we ought to ask, "How could I have expressed this better?"

Finally, there is one important thing to remember.  Effective communication does not guarantee agreement or change.  Your effective communication cannot change a person's heart.  It cannot change their minds.  The power of the Holy Spirit is needed.  We cannot take it personally if someone disagrees with our perspective.

Living Christian in an unchristian world requires us to communicate effectively.  We are to speak the truth.  We are to be those who reflect the truth God is.  We are to speak the truth in love.  We are to listen and speak according to what we have heard.  This is how we show the world the love of God shown to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 2, 2017

You have a locational calling

In this study, we have looked at vocation, the concept of calling, the gifting that God gives to His people to benefit His kingdom.  When we discussed this topic, we noted that while it comes first in the list of topics, it does so largely based on my preference rather than biblical or logical preference. Some begin with gifting and allow that to govern their decisions about location.  Others begin with location and choose their profession in order to stay in that chosen geographical region.  This represents one person's calling different from another's.

The biblical support for the calling of a person to a location appears in Genesis 12.  God calls Abram from Ur to go to the land of Canaan.  While the purpose for this calling had great ramifications for redemptive history, we ought to note how location remained central to the calling of God upon Abram's life.  This continues for Isaac and Jacob.  The mission activity in the New Testament also demonstrates that God often calls people not only to an occupation, but also a location.

While the hierarchy of decisions on these topic may differ, the criteria for making these decisions largely stay the same, adjusting only as ones decisions in one area affect decisions in another.  The first and most important question regarding geography involves the spiritual needs of the individual.  Does the location include a church that will meet the spiritual needs of the individual?  The question about which church to attend we discussed previously.  Now, we ask whether such a church exists in a certain location.  By asking this question we ought not take for granted that every location includes a church that would meet the biblical qualifications we discussed.  Ideally, the Christian should desire a church within his local community.  Failing this, many Christians travel many miles to attend a biblically based church.  This requires the formation of a separate community from their local environment.  The true church has always formed a community that has, in some ways, been separate from the rest of the world.  The ease of travel in modern society and the replacement of geographical community with virtual community has fostered the ability of remote churches to form spiritual communities of geographically diverse people.  There is much in technological advancement for which to give thanks.

Even so, the formation of these communities comes at a cost.  Beyond the cost of technology and travel, the bifurcated communities creates a psychological block to evangelism.  We see the local society distinct from the church and not the subject of ministry by the church.  It becomes difficult to invite people to church when we travel far distances to attend the church.  We can easily become divided from the church and careful attention must be paid by the officers and members of the church to foster fellowship within the church despite the distances.  Even with these challenges, the ability to attend a biblical church must take first priority in our decisions regarding location.

We must acknowledge that there are some places where the true church does not exist and where the distance to reach such a church is too long to make true fellowship practicable.  Some resort to home churches and compromise with deficient churches.  While this must remain a decision between the individual and God, the Bible strongly encourages us to see this as an indicator that God would have us move to a different location.  We are not called to independence, either in rule in home churches or in the absence of fellowship. (I Tim. 3; Heb.10:25)    Compromise in church selection, outside the ordinary allowances discussed previously, endangers our souls.  Church officers have an impact on the congregation, and their failure in their biblical duties places the souls of the people in danger. (Heb.13:17)

With the question of spiritual health out of the way, other biblical criteria may be considered.  To return to the intersection of location and vocation, depending on your particular calling, location may influence vocation and vice versa.  If location then does not govern vocation, than vocation will govern location.  In other words, if you have not chosen a vocation that will allow you to live in a particular area, then your vocation will largely determine where you will live.  Simply put, you will live where you can find employment.  This probably will not limit you to a single location, but it will eliminate some options.  Your duty to the kingdom of God demands that you continue to pursue your vocation.

These are fundamental concepts that most Christian take for granted, but the Bible includes other criteria that ought to influence this decision.  Scripture reminds us about the importance of family.  At its most basic, we must look at the directives Paul gives to Timothy.  The oft quoted verse on a person's duty to provide for his family appears in a broader context.
Honour widows that are widows indeed.  But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.  Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.  But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.  And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless.  But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.  (I Timothy 5:3-8)
Within the context, the verse requires sons to provide for their widowed mothers.  This principle means that the Bible expects children to care for their aging parents and not leave them to the care of the church.  This principle draws from the Fifth Commandment.  Honoring parents means being involved in the life of the family.  While this does not mean that children should live in the same city as their parents, it does mean that each member of the family ought to consider its duty to the rest to be a part of their lives.  No member of the family ought to abandon the family.

Jesus expects His disciples to reside in the world. (John 17:15)  Although He chose us out of the world (John 15:19), our evangelistic duty requires us to interact with our community. (Matthew 28:18-20)  The choice of community requires a bit of self-examination.  The location in which we were raised will influence our ability to interact with that community.  I grew up in the deep south, Mississippi.  As I have dealt with people from the northern states of the United States, I have seen how different we can think and react.  This difference can pose a real barrier to our interactions.  This does not mean that cross-cultural ministry cannot occur.  Indeed, missions requires such a ministry.  However, this is not the calling of many Christians.  In the first century, we read of the travels of Paul, but his experience was extraordinary.  It is part of the Bible to demonstrate the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus that the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth.  Most Christians never left their home, or formed new homes by flight from persecution.  While we read of those who engaged in cross-cultural ministry, they never anticipated it to be the norm, other than bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile, including all in their society to the community of faith, excluding none.  For this reason, unless otherwise called, finding a community into which you fit may be the wisest course for you to follow.

Good stewardship also requires that you find a location that you can afford.  It is biblical to remember that some places cost more than others.  If you would provide for yourself and your house, you ought to consider if your employment will permit you to live in the city or community of your choice.  While many make this a matter of common sense, and so it is, it also have spiritual implications.  God requires us to consider affordability as a matter of stewardship.

Now, in some situations, God calls us to walk by faith despite the economic realities.  Many heroes of the church obeyed God even when the economic of political situation looked dire.  They acted contrary to apparent common sense.  Nevertheless, they represent the exceptions rather than the rule.  There ought to be compelling counter-considerations to overcome the affordability factor.

Finally, we must comment on the question of safety.  In the modern era, we live in a society of free mobility.  We choose where we live.  We are not bound by geography.  We can leave a location that we deem to be unsafe for us or our family.  Are we justified in such a move?  Consider the requirements described in the Westminster Shorter Catechism's discussion on the Sixth Commandment.  "The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others." (WSC 68)  It is not illegitimate to take lawful actions to preserve our life and that of our family.  While we can never achieve perfect safety and must leave our ultimate security in the hand of the sovereign almighty God, we do have warrant for avoiding clearly dangerous locations.

Again, there are exceptions to the rule.  Missionaries willingly enter dangerous foreign places.  This is not illegitimate for it is part of their calling.  Some engaged in domestic cross-cultural ministry may also be so called.  Perhaps one called to a depressed area may see it as his duty to remain in mission to the changing demographics.

If you can't tell from these factors, they are guideline and not firm rules.  It takes discernment.  This will be our mantra for this entire study.  To live as Christian in an unchristian world, your will need to discern from these factors what God is calling you to do, where He is calling you to live.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Vocational Training

One of the difficult anomalies of the modern era is the rise of the concept of adolescence.  Prior to the modern era, cultures has little to no concept of a period between childhood and adulthood.  The individual transitioned immediately between the two.  With industrialization, the advantage of jobs requiring advanced training, and more opportunities to afford that training, the age at which someone was considered an adult increased.  We don't consider someone to be an adult until they are able to financially meet their obligations, to take care of themselves and their families.  Considering most people now go to college, this entry into adulthood may not occur until ones early to mid-twenties.  This can mean that one lingers in the uncertain state of adolescence for possibly a decade.

The cultural situation does not demand much from us in terms of Biblical application.  Practically speaking, prolonged adolescence has its own challenges whereas the immediate transition to adulthood had other challenges.  We ought to be aware that this arrested development that we see in the modern day has its roots in this prolonged adolescence.  Christian adolescence must wrestle with the need to take responsibility for their own actions, for their own finances, while still honoring their parents who often still subsidizes or completely pay their bills.

Within this tension, the Bible's injunctions regarding the duty of every adult to provide for themselves indicates a responsibility to prepare for that future vocation.  We have already address the choice of vocation, we now move to choices and behaviors in preparation for that vocation.

Every vocation requires training.  While the Lord gives us talents and abilities to use for His kingdom, none of us are born knowing how to work.  It is a learned skill.  Whether you are called to be a farmer or a brain surgeon, every work has its necessary training.  The farmer certainly does not need to go to medical school, but must learn the way of the farm and the tools of his trade.

This requires us to think outside the classroom.  Training for our vocation may not require classroom instruction.  Certainly certain basic fundamentals will be taught in a classroom environment.  Every vocation requires the ability to read, write, and calculate.  Even if someone could be trained to a work without these abilities, they benefit the worker in bettering his ability to pursue his vocation.  As a Christian ought to strive for excellence in his work to the glory of God, these minimum lessons are necessary.

The point we labor to make is that not every calling requires a person to attend college.  Skilled laborers may benefit from vocational training, but the kind of specialized education of college may be excessive.  I say this, because our society has made college a necessary part of life.  There is an uncritical assumption that one must go to college to obtain a well-paying job.  This assumption has so infected our society that demand for skilled manual labor has risen precipitously.  Students who dislike school and show talent for manual labor often struggle with a society that determines worth based on education.  The absence of a college degree does not indicate that a person lacks intelligence or knowledge.  The church should not perpetrate not perpetuate the hubris of culture.

For those whose calling requires further education, the Bible has something to say about the choice of educational providers.  We live in a glut of colleges and universities, fighting for a limited pool of applicants.  Even so, the costs of a four-year degree are substantial.  Student loans have provided a means to defer the payment of these costs.  However, the burden that student loans can place upon individuals has become a major concern in many industries.  The ABA reported that graduates from law school borrowed on average between $84,000 and $122,000. (https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/statistics/avg_amnt_brwd.authcheckdam.pdf)  A law student basically graduates owing a house without the house.  This does not even count the cost of college.  USA Today reports that the average student debt coming out of college is around $30,000. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/04/28/average-student-loan-debt-every-state/100893668/)  So, a graduate of law school owes the equivalent of a new car and a house without the car and house.  Medical student generally owes more.  Even graduates from seminary headed to the pastorate often carry substantial debt limiting their options.

This debt burden has garnered attention in the present age.  The Bible speaks strongly about debt.  "The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender." (Proverbs 22:7)  "Be not thou one of them that strike hands, or of them that are sureties for debts." (Proverbs 22:26)  While debt is not in itself a sin, the Bible warns that we not become a slave to debt.  With this in mind, We ought to think carefully about our debt obligations.  We ought to plan and consider how our debt obligations will restrict our opportunities.

While the Christian's duty to pursue excellence in his work remains, that ought not require the assumption that one must attend the "best" college or university.  At the outset, the determination of "best" arises from criteria of the reviewer that may not reflect the individual's experience, nor may it well-train the student.  In law, many assume that so-called "ivy-league" schools were the best.  The last few decades, employers grew less sanguine about hiring these graduates due to the political rather than practical education the students received.  Instead, we need to allow the Bible to guide us into the "best" college for each person.

Some wisdom guidance here may be raised with little comment.  The options should have the degree program and be respected with regard to that degree program.  The campus and housing should be a safe environment.  A common sense factor, but one that becomes more and more important in the current rash of violence in and around educational institutions.  A visit to the institution should precede any decision and the student satisfied that the institution will meet their needs as well as provide an environment acceptable to the student and learning.

The Bible does remind us that education functions in aid of our service of Christ rather than in opposition to it.  For this reason, some have chosen Christian colleges.  There are many fine institutions that provide a distinctly Christian moral atmosphere for their faculty and students.  I have experienced a number of these firsthand and heard reports of others.  While the moral atmosphere has its advantages, it does not compensate for the worship and Christian fellowship the church provides.  Many look to a Christian college or college Bible studies to compensate for their lack of engagement in the local church.  They often excuse their lack of connection to the church with the perceived busyness of their lives.  They are not alone in this excuse, and the excuse does not excuse.  Engagement with the local church is necessary even for those in Christian colleges.

Further, many Christian colleges follow a legalistic methodology toward Christian behavior.  The slippery slope argument truly occurs.  It is not a hypothetical slope, but one history shows actually leads many to legalism.  The way this slope works comes from the combination of the Christian, Biblical morality of the institution and the necessity of practical living regulations.  In any collective group, some rules are necessary to preserve a peaceful society.  Everyone acknowledges that these rules are needed even if they are inconvenient.  Students willingly put themselves under these rules.  This ought not cause a problem.  Many of these rules are broken through inadvertence and forgetfulness, without malice or the desire to rebel.  Christian institutions that insist on absolute obedience, who equate the inadvertent infraction with direct rebellion, who crush any voice of dissent, use their power to enforce a legalistic mindset.  Non-biblical rules take the same place as the Ten Commandments.  The atmosphere becomes fraught with fear and suspicion.  This is not the case with all Christian colleges, but more common than may at first seem.  Choosing a Christian college then is not unwise, but cannot be elected uncritically.  

In addition, whatever college is chosen, the student must find and engage in the worship of God and fellowship with God's people within a church.  While this choice of church lasts for a limited time, it is nevertheless critical.  Do not let the name on the sign dictate your decision.  All Reformed churches are not good, nor all baptist churches problematic.  In addition, as part of the review process for a particular institution, the availability of an appropriate place of worship must be considered.  The lack of an acceptable church should disqualify the college or university.  The matter of spiritual growth and guidance during these years is critical.

Near the bottom of the list of factors to be considered is the question of location.  Most people think of this factor in relation to cost: in-state versus out-of-state tuition.  This factor does influence another part of life.  Research has shown that most people end up living and working within a few miles of their college or university.  While this statistic only points to trends rather than forming an invariable result, it does elevate the factor to one that requires thought.  There is an element of proximity to family that matters as well as proximity to community.  In a later place, we will discuss more fully the issue of location.  Suffice it to say here, that God not only calls us to a particular work, but also to a particular place.  It matters then where we go.

Finally, college campuses have become difficult places to live faithfully for Jesus Christ.  Absent a Christian college, the environment will generally trend to the secular, at times even exceeding the general community in its dalliance with depravity.  I remember hearing with horror some of the warnings given to students at state colleges and universities, warnings necessitated by the wicked things that sinful people perpetrated on one another.  While these may have been isolated incidents, their occurrence reflected the abandonment of morality that we see trending in our culture.

Not only are these campuses environmentally discouraging toward Christian morality, they also discourage Christian speech.  A person who supports Christian ideas will often find himself opposed to the thinking, not merely of his classmates, but also of the faculty.  This means that the student must enter this environment with a grim determination to stand for Jesus regardless of the opposition that exists.  How to do this will appear in another place concerning the manner in which Christians ought communicate.

Again, we have no interest in giving absolute answer to highly specialized questions.  The factors involved are so greatly individualized as we have noted they begin with individual calling.  Nevertheless, though not exhaustive, these guidestones provide sufficient direction to point the prospective student toward a wise method of considering the question.  A proper decision in this area will begin the journey of living Christian in an unchristian world.

N.B.  I think it important to note that a seemingly unfortunate decision in the choice of college, God often uses for good.  Providence works.  My choice of PCC may have had soul crushing effects, but God worked that experience to my good and His glory and set my feet upon the path that put me right were I belong.  Remember, we make these decisions based on limited knowledge, and may find ourselves in a position we consider troublesome.  This does not invalidate the wisdom of the decision nor hinder God from using it in our life.  College is preparatory, not determinative.  It is a means, not the end.