A Work in Progress

A website, and particularly a Blog, is an eternal work in progress — much like life itself.

Both writing and living can at times seem like scaling the very slopes of Everest. The writing process often reminds me of a favourite rhyme of my father. “First a little; then a lottle.” (The Catsup Bottle by Ogden Nash) The writer, actually the creator of any design or content for that matter, often labours seemingly endlessly to get drips and drabs of results. Then all at once it can pour forth.

If you are new to reading a blog, please check our About Blogs page to get the lay of the land.

Please explore and enjoy…

Church Small Groups vs Biblical Gathering

The contemporary church (mostly irrespective of denomination) has seen a legitimate need to minister to individuals outside of the usual Sunday Service and Sunday School. This comes from a realization that a mass gathering does not often reflect the mentoring requirements for individual Christian growth and accountability. This is a valid realization. The Bible is clear that we are to study the scripture and be accountable in community, yet a large group generally stifles more intimate sharing and questioning.

In our time, however, this justification for mentoring and smaller group fellowship has often been combined with the theories and assumptions of both secular and New Age psychology surrounding personal growth, self esteem, group dynamics and the individual entitlement of man over the assembly. Not that these areas of study do not yield results for society, but they are frequently not based upon biblical principles and operate under very different assumptions about the status of man. They are at their root completely at odds with Biblical values.

Secular values are predominantly post-modern, with a relativistic value structure. They assume that all truth is relative either within society or individually, and that every individual is entitled to self-driven actualization. Most congregants operate unconsciously from a mindset which combines both these underlying values, with each given almost equal weight or the post-modern predominating.

This is completely at odds with the Biblical truth of divine sovereignty, absolute universal laws, and individual responsibility superseding individual entitlement.

Put more practically (and to use the biblical analogy of Isaiah 29:16 very loosely), society see the clay as entitled to a hearing and compliance from the potter, while the biblical truth of creation is precisely the opposite. The potter is completely independent and sovereign over the clay, owing it nothing whatsoever (Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:4).

Why does this matter? It matters because the view point that current small group ministry grows from determines whether it can fill the need that the formal church does not, that of the smaller integrated fellowship described in the early church.

So, we have something of a quandary. Does the present small group structure in most churches address the Biblical proscription modeled in the early church gatherings – one based on wholly biblical precepts?

Let me also close this post by pointing out that this discussion does not discount the many wonderful benefits of fellowship in current groups. The question is whether they address the biblical model and any regulative principle that is implies, since all biblical principles are by definition important.

Book Review – Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 2/2

Evaluation

I read the author’s intent as including several overarching goals, some stated and some implied. The first stated goal is to show that the Bible is a form of literature. This is proven by the full spectrum of literary forms that are used consistently across most Scriptural genres, in both the Old and New Testaments. This also demonstrates that the extensive use of literary forms by scriptural writers was deliberate. This is effective in making Dr. Ryken’s case.

Second, having established that the Bible can be studied profitably as literature, the book seeks to analyze each Scriptural genre individually, briefly cataloging the literary devices used and a set of precepts for read the text with these in mind. Though a more complete academic treatment of each genre in possible, the book provides sufficient explanation, guidelines and examples to make each technique clear.

The area of the reading and application guidelines is where I would suggest that the book has a minor shortcoming. The guidelines or rules provided for each literary device, as applied to each genre, are scattered throughout the associated chapters. This is appropriate for initially explaining the techniques, but it is quite unwieldy in providing a set of tools for use in later application. The book would be greatly enhanced by the inclusions of either a.) an end of chapter listing of the genre guidelines developed in that chapter, or b.) an appendix listing the each genre and associated guidelines in summary.  The inclusion of an appendix would be best. The guidelines themselves, however, are for the most part clear and relevant.

The third goal is implicit more than stated. Throughout the book, Dr. Ryken refers to the importance of experiencing the stories and other forms of the text, rather the viewing them as colds fasts to be intellectually supported. He states repeatedly that to ignore the experiential aspect is to miss much of the communication and the intent of the writers.

I would agree very strongly with this. I consider to be more significant that the guidelines provided for literary analysis. I have long held the conviction that though exposition requires a strong commitment to factual analysis, the text has much more to communicate though it’s literary form. From my experience this has been actively discouraged in the church in modern times, yet Dr. Ryken’s book shows that it was clearly the intent of the biblical writers that it be read this way. I was very heartened to see this and I consider it to be the most significant contribute of the book.

Conclusion

This book makes a successful case that the Bible, both as a whole and in individual portions, should be viewed as literature. As such, literary analysis should be an equal tool set beside traditional hermeneutic techniques. The book provides a concise synopsis of appropriate literary forms and associated techniques for analysis for the major biblical genres. The most significant proposal for bible study is that the stories and other genres be experienced as much as analyzed. A convincing case is made that the biblical writers included literary techniques in order to convey an experiential meaning that is beyond that which the plain doctrinal and proof text meaning are capable of imparting.

The text of the bible is demonstrated through structure and example to contain a richness of expression that is only fully received when view from a total engaged perspective. This perspective includes all the experiential, emotion and intellectual inputs supplied by the text, and these are partially communicated almost exclusively through literary form.

Bottom Line

This book added a new hermeneutical and confirming dimension for me. It gave voice to my conviction of the importance of affective content in interpretation (something largely and proactively ignored in the Reformed community), and how that content is communicated.

Literary analysis has an important place in the interpretive process. I am not convinced that, as VP Long would propose in The Art of Biblical History, it must come before historical-grammactical and canononical analysis. However, I do feel it has an equal place with historical-grammatical techniques.

An excellent book.

Gathering in the Beloved

Let us start with a biblical prototype for believer interaction – “…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;” Ephesians 5:18-19.

Notice that there is no indication at all that this is culturally or time period relative. That is, it is a time independent prototype.

Now, continuing, we also have method. As we gather – ” Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16

And next, motivation to gather regularly – “…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25.

So proto-typically, we have believers gathering together regularly to study and speak of the Word and of the Lord, thankfully (and by implication humbly) rejoicing in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Further, the disciples documented in Scripture modeled this in their behaviour once they were on their own, after Pentecost – ” They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42

And again ” Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,” Acts 2:46. It is also significant to note the “Day by day continuing”. This was not something occurring only periodically, be that weekly or monthly. It was a daily mode of living the believing life.

Putting this all together, what do we have and what happens when we follow this paradigm in our day? First we should take note that, although church is vitally important, this does not sound anything like a church service anywhere that I know of, which is interesting in itself.

A key here is that the focus and feeling is centered around a humble thankfulness in salvation, and the upon the Lord, through the primary means he specified, scripture. This may have taken several forms and expressions, but the focus was on Him and His Word.

It is also edifying to note what the focus was not on. It was not on ‘activities’ outside of praise, worship and directly associated fellowship. It was not on the work of the assembly in the community. Not that this work did not exist or was not important, but it played no apparent part in the assembling. It was external to it. For example, there was no focus on the men who were helping the widows. In fact, it appears from their appointment elsewhere that they were appointed so that their work would not be disruptive to the gathering in the Lord’s name.

The sole reason for the beloved to gather was to fellowship in rejoicing in the Lord and His work of creating His people. All the activities were an expression of that rejoicing. And this was a daily way of life, which would result in that mindset overshadowing all other activities.

One might say that in consideration of what the Lord has done, rejoicing in Him in a way that eclipses all else would seem only appropriate to believers. But here we see it modeled explicitly.

So, how about us in the 21st century? I don’t see that anything has changed. Yes, life has become cluttered with countless new distractions of the world, and that same world would have us believe that this clutter is of over-riding importance. Remember who the world represents and to whose ends this worldly emphasis contributes – none other than the Prince of the Air (Ephesians 2:2). Further, the Scriptures have not changed. There has not been any new revelation that changes these prototypes as given in the existing canon.

The result is that we are to follow suit in our focus. And having said that, I would atest that when we actually manage it, which as sinners is often sporadic at best, the experience is wonderful, humbling and convicting. It mirrors David in Psalm 139:6 “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.” The humble thankfulness and joy of gathering with other believers to give thanks and rejoice in the Lord in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is just too wonderful for us to fully take in.

To be awestruck is the only appropriate response. T’would that it were our only way of life…

 

Book Review – Reading the Bible as Literature – Part 1/2

How to Read the Bible as Literature
Leland Ryken Ph.D.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Zondervan, 208p
ISBN 978-0-310-39021-3

Introduction

How to Read the Bible as Literature by Dr. Leland Ryken is a call to all those engaged in Bible study to included literary analysis in their interpretive methodology and to allow a more complete personal engagement with the Biblical text. Dr. Ryken proposes that the traditional, exclusively intellectual approach to interpreting the Bible does a disservice to the literary nature of the text. This disservice results in a loss of interpretive content. Through the examination of literary devices in the various genres of Scripture he demonstrates the literary nature of the bible. He further develops appropriate sets of guidelines for the literary analysis of each genre, illustrating that this method yields a more complete exposition. He implies that tradition interpretive method alone relegates the emotional and affective content of the Scriptures to an inferior position within Scriptural analysis. This fails to allow the text to engage the reader fully, and as a result, a substantial amount of the intended communication is lost. He contends that complete engagement of the reader was the original biblical intent, a fact supported by the deliberate use of literary forms throughout the Scriptures. His solution is the use of literary analysis in hermeneutics. I agree with his position, though with some misgiving concerning application.

His techniques are able to add a significant wider perspective to both devotional and theological bible study. This supports his contention that literary analysis should have a prominent place in Hermeneutical instruction.

Background Information and Context

The present text stems from Dr. Ryken’s observations over many years in the classroom, primarily at Wheaton College in Illinois. As an English Professor in the seminary environment, he observed that while the tradition, intellectually based approaches to Scriptural interpretation were well addressed, the literary perspective was either ignored or considered inappropriate. He came to see this as completely at odds with his view of the Scriptures as literary writings. Further, he observed that a great deal was being missed in exegesis and interpretation though the omission of literary content which the Biblical authors had included through literary genre and device. This book attempts to address these omissions by developing a literary approach to interpretation. This is accomplished by introducing applicable literary genres and demonstrating techniques for literary analysis of each genre.

Summary

Dr. Ryken summarizes his book as “a ‘grammar’ of literary forms and techniques” (p10). However, in providing this exposition of forms and techniques, the book also provides extensive justification for their use as parallel techniques on equal footing with the standard grammatico-historical method. He proposes that “there is a preoccupation among biblical writers with artistry, verbal craftsmanship, and aesthetic beauty” (p9) which speaks to the experiential and emotional side of the interpreter. This important communication from the biblical writers has been ignored or denied in classic hermeneutics.

The book proposes that the sheer weight of deliberate literary devices used by the biblical writers supports a view of the Scriptures as literature. The bible also illustrates a strong propensity for communicating through the story as a primary medium, as opposed to theological discourse and proofs. This alters both the way the bible should be read and the communication it provides. As a result “The story does not primarily require our minds to grasp an idea but instead gets us to respond with our imagination and emotions to a real-life experience. Literature, in short, is affective, not cool and detach.” (p15).

The affective nature of the Bible, conveyed primarily through story but also expanded in almost all bible genres, is developed as the discussion addresses each genre individually. Beginning with the primary genre of  story, successive chapters extend this theme into poetry, proverbs, the Gospels, Parables, the Epistles, Satire, and Apocalyptic books.

Each genre is addressed with a definition, exposition of appropriate literary devices and textual examples. The examples not only demonstrate the literary devices but add additional weight the evidence in support of the Bible as literature. A set of interpretive rules emerges for the literary analysis of each genre. These rules provide a framework for the reader to apply the techniques to other texts.

The Bible is shown to be a book for stories, some related by biblical characters and others written in the lives of those historical characters. These stories communicate precepts through the experiences of people. A set of guidelines or rules are developed for reading the story genre. Similarly, other genres such as poetry have sets of guidelines for using literary analysis for interpretation. For example: ”Interpret as figurative any statement that does not make sense at a literal level in the context in which it appears.”(p102).

Throughout the discussions of each literary genre, Dr. Ryken demonstrates the use of the literary forms to communicate to the reader experientially. The motif of experiential communications is shown to be consistent over all genres and therefore throughout the Bible. For example, in discussing simile and metaphor within poetry, he states that “There is an irreducible quality to metaphor and simile that we should respect, both as readers and expositors”(p92). This irreducible quality speaks to the experiential and emotional, which is a common thread throughout the book.

The book concludes with discussion of the literary unity of the Bible as a story which “which has a beginning-middle-end pattern, a unifying plot conflict between good and evil, a focus on people in the act of choosing, and a central protagonist who is God.”(p179). These techniques are shown to combine to form a unified theme and convey “archetypal plot motifs” (p191).

All of the forgoing literary genres and techniques combine into an “affective power”(p196) which engages the whole person of the reader. The expositor and interpreter are stronger encouraged to participate in this engagement.

Beyond the Good-O-Meter

In the previous post containing the Good-O-Meter clip, I mentioned that the theology had some issues. What issues, you might ask?

Well, the meter implies in its evaluations that each of the lost individuals has some amount of good credited to them at judgment. It surges up to as much as the half way mark, then falls back to the level assigned by judgment – that of ‘bad’. Though this works well dramatically, it is very important to understand that this is not the case in reality. There is an implication that the ‘good’ parts of the individuals have some value before God. That is completely wrong.

Scripture is clear that all are tainted in every aspect, having no good at all unless they are regenerated in Christ. Works or virtues outside of Christ have no value whatsoever before God.

Isaiah 64:6 states it clearly “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment”

Even the finest virtues and character of the unregenerate are a ‘filthy garment’ before God. All of the virtues and any good that is done by the unregenerate is tainted by the imputed sin that is passed on to every one of Adam’s seed. Every superficially Godly or good dead is in fact an abomination to the Lord because it is done in a spirit of rebellion against Him and denial of Him. That makes every human being (past, present and future) that has not been saved unacceptable before a righteous and holy God. Scripture is again clear that nothing of them is counted as of any value.

So, in this clip, the meter should not move at all from initial ‘bad’ position except in the case of the regenerated.

That said, however, the most important point is made very clearly – salvation is through Christ Alone.

The Good-O-Meter…

The truth can be told in many forms. Though the theology of this is not perfect, it does make the essential point well – Christ Alone. (It is an old clip, so the resolution is poor)

Irenic or Polemic?

How theological issues are discussed is often thought of as a matter of cool academic consideration among peers, but frequently the tone of the discussion is a matter of temperament.

Irenic – a discussion conducted without attacking the other person or their beliefs in a personal sense. Call it cool, rational discussion. Also, each conflicting point of view is given a fair airing.

Polemic – Arguing a point by attacking the other person or their point of view personal. No attempt to made to put their case equally for them, nor to be cool and rational.

Of course both of these are extremes, with most discussions falling in the middle ground.

Michael Patton of Reclaiming the Mind Ministries suggests that these are the two approaches that one sees in theological discussions, with the polemic being sadly (in his view) the most common. His preference leans very strongly to the irenic, and he feels that this must be cultivated if fruitful discussion is to occur.

When it comes to significant theology discussions, I tend to be something of a ‘take no prisoners’ guy, particularly if I am passionate about a topic (and I am always passionate about Reformed issues). That would make me somewhat polemic.

Discussions in the world, particularly those involving closely held beliefs or attitudes, tend to often be polemic to the degree that people become personally and emotionally involved. Though people will often rationally see the value of a more disciplined irenic approach, once emotionally engaged in the discussion an irenic attitude is very difficult to maintain. The more personal the point being made or the challenged becomes, the more polemic the likely path of the discussion.

But why is that?

We have a tendency to take opposing views about personally significant topics (faith being about the most significant that there is) as a challenge not only to the position but to our right to hold that point of view, irrespective of whether that is the intent. Or conversely, we present our views in a way that not only challenges the other viewpoint but but also assaults the holder’s audacity for holding that view.

The appropriate question then is: why we react that way and perceive a threat in an opposing point of view – even if we consider the view to be in error? Why are we reacting as if the opposing view must be changed and our view justified in the opposing person’s eyes, before we are secure in our view?

The root of quandary centers on who we are actually answerable to for our views?

In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 Paul addresses this fairly directly. “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes. Paul forgives offenses, offering grace, in the same spirit of grace by which he has been forgiven, that it might reflect well on Christ and not be used by Satan. Surely the application of this forgiveness applies just as much to an offense given in a discussion, irrespective of whether the offense is real or perceived.

Frustrating though we may find a disagreement or a differing view, who in the end do we answer to for the theology that we hold? And who holds the other person accountable for their view? And behond that, who is the architect of any change in viewpoint on either side? The answer in all case is the Lord and only the Lord. Judgment is not ours. Vengeance is not ours. The responsibility to force a change in position or justify it to the satisfaction of another (or for that matter to that of society) is not ours. Ours is only to speak the Truth in faith.

This being so, agreeing to disagree or having irreconcilable differences does not reflect upon us if we are rooted in the Truth. If our honest appraisal is that we are correct Scripturally, then we can disagree without the need to defend emotionally, since nothing real is threatened.

In the only court of opinion that counts (that of our Lord), judgment is of the Lord, by His standards, and the views of the opposing individual are completely moot. Only our reflection of Christ’s attributes and precepts carries weight.

Our only concern, then, is the validity of our view before the Lord and that is determined by means of the Scriptural revelation that he provided – the Bible – and it alone (Sola Scriptura). This also, of course, presumes the presence and assistance of the Spirit (always the case for believers).

With assurance based in the Word, the opinions of the world are not relevant. In fact, as our Lord states, since he was persecuted for the truth, we should not expect less.

The opinion of our brethren in the family of God does matter, of course, but even there theological discussion is to seek truth alone, before God. In that search, there is no threat from differing opinions among men. The opinions that count are of the Lord.

Notice that I did not say easy in this regard. But a correct mind set concerning the sovereignty of God and relevancy of Scripture in these situations can hopefully help a lot in bringing clarity to our reactions and diminish them somewhat Even if we react imperfectly, it should help.

An appropriate Polemic or Irenic reaction is at least partially based upon our acceptance and actualization of our place as men and women before our Lord. Both approaches are appropriate in some situations IMO, but only one mind set is appropriate. And once again, as long as we remain alive on earth, I never said easy…

 

Apples, Oranges or Bananas?

Let’s follow a previous post discussion of fruits of the Spirit in the context of assurance a bit farther…

Before someone accuses me of discounting the fruits of the Spirit, let me state that they are indeed important markers. After all, in Galatians 5:22-23 we have “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”.

So these are significant results of salvation. Fruits grow as the final result in the plant and they appear differently for not only different plant species but occasionally even the same type of plant. Scripture does not indicate that they are the root or even a determining factor for salvation, initial or eternal. To push the plant analogy further, an apple tree that does not produce fruit at any particular point is still an apple tree. The fruit is not the determinate of the species.

If the fruits of the Spirit were in any way a determining factor, then we would have a salvation of works which would vest some of God’s sovereignty into our actions on our own behalf. For those not remembering, that reverts right back to Pelagian heresy of the 4th century. We won’t go there since this discussion assumes a correct Reformed theology.

We should also again stress that discernment of belief is in ones own heart before God, and the message of the Gospel must be believed at that level (the lack of which no doubt creates the tares among the wheat). We can not see into the heart of another and therefore can not determine their status before the Lord, nor would we be correct in doing so. As Scripture points out, only the Lord judges the heart. Our task is only to discern our own heart with the simple, straightforward message of the Gospel. That places us with the saved, or not.

So, the fruits of the Spirit are significant marks of salvation, which may be observed in the regenerate at differing times and in differing ways. They may also be observed in the reprobate. The only true assurance is from the belief in the heart of the Gospel message.

This has hug implications in the life of the believer. Those struggling with the flesh while truly believing on Jesus Christ in their hearts are not showing signs of being a reprobate. Their struggle is not the mark of the unsaved. Quite the opposite. The reprobate does not suffer angst over their sin. The angst suffered over our failures is a sign of election and cause to rejoice in the Lord (for clarification see the Canons of Dort). It is the sign that the law has fulfilled its sole function.

In conclusion, preaching the fruits of the Spirit as the marker of necessity for salvation, and assurance of such, is error, plain and simple. It does not reflect the message of Scripture and does harm to God’s people as they work through their salvation.

Assurance is drawn from ones true belief in the message of the Gospel, and that alone. And that message is about Christ, not fruit…

An Ecclesiastical Paradox

My church experiences over the years leads me to recall an interesting ecclesiastical puzzle that a friend brought up some time ago and that I have observed several times across congregations.

Case 1: The Pastor of a protestant church (I have no Catholic experience to offer) announces that he has been ‘called’ to a new church and will leave shortly.

Although people may be sad and regret the situation (or not in some cases), they do not question for a moment that the ‘call’ is devine. He is wished well and sent off into the sunset as an obedient servant.

Case 2: Same scenario except that this time a congregant member of a protestant church announces that he doesn’t fit at the church for one reason or another, and is moving to or looking for a new church.

In this case, the congregant is more often than not told that he or she has been placed in that congregation by the Lord for a reason and shouldn’t ‘run away’ from problems. His or her reason is assumed to be a man-centered one and certainly not devine in origination. If they do leave, the well wishes are often grudging as best, possibly judgemental and assumes that the congregant has the problem.

So, what is wrong with these pictures?

In many (I won’t go so far as to say most) instances, the pastor in Case 1 was less than happy with the current church or he wouldn’t have bothered with the new offer. The legitimacy of that unhappiness is not relevant to our discussion here. The new ‘call’ may legitimately be a better devine utilization of pastoral gifts. It may also be just a more comfortable fit for the person. In either case, no fault is attributed.

The situation in Case 2, however, present a problem. Why can a Pastor feel a calling to a new situation (even one that suits better) and it is okay, even a blessing for all, while the same move by a congregant is treated as man-centered and a problem in the congregant?

It just doesn’t wash, folks.

Is the Pastor intrinsically closer to the Lord? I don’t buy it as universal. Is the congregant intrinsically farther from the Lord? Again, makes no sense.

If the congregant should be working through whatever the issues are, then the pastor should be doing no less. If the pastor can hear a new and exciting call, then the congregant can do likewise and should have equal blessing. The congregant and Pastor should be regarded with unanimity.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there is not a clear time to go, or to stay. That is always between the believer and the Lord. The problem illuminated here is the use of man-centered values and reasons to treat two situation differently.

Just something to ponder…

Congregational Identity

In a previous post, A TULIP by any other name , I posed the question “So, how and to what degree should we seek theological clarity? Does it even matter?”.

A small church pastor of my acquaintance, some years ago, proposed that not only does it not matter but that giving it any importance is wrong and divisive. In the words of the Apostle Paul “May it never be!”.

We are in effect asking what purpose and value there is in theological inquiry, and if it is mandated biblically for the congregation at large. I would propose that not only is it mandated, but to do otherwise would be to ultimately revert to a pre-Reformation state, with an all powerful Magisterium. Further, this would reduce any real Bible reading to word repetition with only magical significance, again falling back to the Magisterium understanding. Surely this not where we are lead to go!

As to the mandate to study the Scriptures, we have only to cite the Bereans, who are praise as correct for searching the Scriptures day and night to attain understanding (Acts 17:11).

Now to the purpose and value there is in theological inquiry.

Let’s start by considering an underlying issue at hand. How does a church get its identity? Or more appropriately – how should a church get its identity? Any difference between the does and the should will help with our original question.

When you think of a church with which you are familiar, what do you think of?

Do you think of their great contribution to the community? Do you think of their great childrens programs and activities. What of their assistance to those in need physically or mentally? Do you think of the wonderful people who attend there? Do you think of their support for the family or marriage in trying times?

If those are the attributes that come to mind, then those are the things that form the identify of that church before the world, the things into which their energy and thought are poured.

All of these things are good in themselves, but are they the primary reason for the church to exist? Do they bring to mind the primary place that believers are to draw identity from? It would not appear so.

All of the attributes listed are supporting things of world. They are secular in nature. All are addressed by other good and honourable agencies, possibly even more effectively than by the church. Though these good works are certainly the hallmark of the church, they can not be the primary distinguishing characteristic because they are man-centered.

Man-centered activities are of the flesh by nature, derived from the mind of flesh. As such, they are can not lead to spiritual things. As Galatians 5:17 states “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”

Things of the flesh and programs based upon it can not produce an identity that is based in the Lord. They are an anathema to one another and the identity produced is of the world.

Does this mean that this identity is bad or evil. Not at all. But is does mean that it, like the fallen man from whom it springs, is not of God and can not by definition truly please god. They do not develop an identity based in Christ. They can not. They are of the world and as such unacceptable before God. As Scripture states, they are clothed in “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), no matter how good they appear.

Conversely, do think of the church in terms of their love of Christ, their dedication to His Word, their passion to understand it, their joyful worship, their passion for glorifying Christ and the Father in everything, almost forgetting their programs and such?

These are things of the Spirit. They lead to correct understanding and to correct standing before God. They are the reason that we were created.

Part of this pursuit is the desire to understand the precepts which the Lord has given us in His Word. To follow His precepts we must understand them and His Word is our source. So (as did the Bereans) we study them, their meaning and the resultant biblical doctrine as a first priority. Following this doctrine in common understanding gives us identity with its source.

The identity of the believers and their church should have nothing whatsoever to do with the programs, works and activities of worldly life. It must be grounded solely in the Word and its precepts (doctrine). This is where the true church draws its identity and the only way it can be know as belonging to Christ. This is precisely the opposite to the worldly focus initially described.

That said, this does not denying the value of programs and activities . They are invaluable. They are not, however, the basis of the church nor the primary focus of believers. They are fruit – an after effect of correct identity, when energy is focused upon Christ and the Word.

So, back to our original questions. The sole source of identity of the church, supporting the faith of believers, is the focus on our Lord and His worship, the seeking of theological truth from the Word and the communication of biblically correct doctrine.

These matters of theology are not small differences. Correct doctrine binds believers together in worship of God, creating a solid church. Without that, identity is a fleeting feeling based in programs that succeed or fail in the world. And without foundational agreement, the body is not solid, but frail.

Identity based upon worldly matters may in fact create a church, but it is not the church of Jesus Christ.