2010 Ligonier Regional Conference - Questions and Answers
Prior to breaking for lunch, attendees at our Being a Christian in a Post-Christian World regional conference were treated to a question-and-answer session in which Dr. Robert W. Godfrey (G), Dr. Albert Mohler (M), and Rev. Burk Parsons (P) responded to questions from those attending the seminar.
Even though the foundations of America are not the Lord’s, foundations, would the fall of America make the proclamation of the gospel more difficult?
G: In one sense yes, because America has been a missionary-sending country. If permanent decline happens in the nation, it is hard to see how missions would be unaffected. Furthermore, as citizens we should be concerned about our society. Though it is far from a Christian nation, America does hold up ideas of justice and freedom in many parts of the world.
M: We must affirm a providential view of history. We believe God sovereignly rules over all and that there is meaning to everything in history. So we can say that America’s rise was no accident — the emergence of America happened in God’s providence. Of course, it is wrong to overemphasize the Christian background of America, but the settlers from Europe did have a worldview influenced in large measure by Christianity.
If we take out America, we also lose the strength of denominations and churches, as well as much else that is good. Bismark was once asked about Germany’s future, and he replied that the most significant fact for Germany was that Americans speak English. This English-American dominance has done much good. American dominance allows for the transmission of information across the globe, and this is not without gospel influence. We may need to repent of a confusion between the city of God and the city of man, but Christians should see America’s existence as providing a platform from which the gospel can be launched. We would not want to see this disappear.
Is there a time in which believers should flee from a wicked environment in the church? Where should Christians go if they find themselves in a liberal-leaning church?
P: A few years ago we did an issue of Tabletalk magazine in which Dr. Mohler contributed a helpful article on the subject. Mohler gave us a helpful grid for thinking about when to leave a church. He goes through a theological triage, a stage of diagnosis in which we look for the best way to act in these matters of leaving a church much as how medical triage examines how to treat a patient. The article points out what is fundamental and what is of secondary concern to believers.
M: This is a pressing question in the life of the believer, and the Reformation is a helpful guide here. We must first figure out if what we have joined/are joining is a church. Is the gospel proclaimed and the Word taught there? If not, then we ask if it be reformed? If it cannot be reformed and refuses to change, you must leave. In this case you are not leaving a church because you were never a part of a church to begin with. Switching between churches when both of them preach the gospel is another matter entirely.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:18 that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What does this mean?
P: The Westminster Confession of Faith and other Reformed confessions like the Three Forms of Unity and the London Baptist Confession all deal helpfully with this subject in relation to the discipline of the church, which is what these verses are about. Of course, we are all under the church’s discipline in that we are all under the preaching of the Word. But discipline is typically thought of as dealing with sin. When an impenitent person is in the church, the process of discipline begins with admonition from the Word so that the person might repent. We must then, if there is no repentance, take witnesses, and then, if admonition with witnesses does not bring repentance, we take it to the church and perhaps as far as excommunication, as Matthew 18:15–17 instructs us. If the church is not dealing with sin and calling people to repentance and faith, then the church is not being the church.
Again we are talking about cases in which there is no repentance. Christians are marked by their repentance when confronted with sin.
G: What we do need to take away from Matthew 18 is the very solemn reminder that the church is not a human institution that we can take and leave. It is a divine institution that God establishes, and when the church follows God’s Word, its decisions are confirmed in heaven. The church is not a club or fun group that we can take or leave, and church leaders have a responsibility to make it clear that God is at work in a church through discipline.
Is Glenn Beck practicing a form of syncretism?
M: If you are a Mormon, you are practicing syncretism — the attempt to blend disparate parts into a whole and then call it something new. Mormonism claims to be a completion of Christianity, and it is syncretistic in that it claims to be another testament and another revelation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The real question is what kind of Mormon is Glenn Beck? Ultimately, I am not as concerned about Glenn Beck as I am about Christians who think Glenn Beck is a Christian.
G: A good test for Christians in terms of their dual citizenship and Glenn Beck is this one: If you watch and like Glenn Beck and you get much more emotional about Beck’s issues than what your minister says, then there may be well something unbalanced in your life.
M: We better be the people that know Mormonism is idolatry and a form of false religion. It is a dangerous idolatry because it is homegrown and because its ethical values are often similar to orthodox Christianity as far as the family structure and other social issues. Some people take this fruit and associate it with Christianity, but if we do this without considering Mormon and Christian theology, we fail to differentiate between common grace and special grace.
G: Barnhouse once asked this question that is helpful in discerning these matters: “What would a town look like if the Devil took it over completely?” He answered that it would be well manicured, everyone would go to a church where the gospel is never preached, bars are closed, and so on. Everyone would be nice.
We should also note that Mormonism is hierarchical and anti-democratic. It claims that its lead prophet, under inspiration, can speak for God and that all Mormons are bound by his word. That is a dangerous ideology.
Should Christians start home churches not led by people with seminary training?
M: No, except where it is necessary. If we are in an area where Christianity has not been planted, I want someone to get up and preach the gospel. We must remember still that the church is where the teaching office is found, and there has to be an authentic way of finding it, no matter the definition and processes of ordination. Also, in many of these house church situations, we do not have an embryonic church growing into an established church but an embryonic situation growing into a clan, not a church.
P: In China there were only a few Christians in the 1970s. Today there are 30 to 40 million of them. There are a host of underground and house churches that meet in secret and are not registered with the government as China requires. These Christians believe they need to meet secretly to be free from government influence. It is something of a necessity there. In Iran, we see much of the same thing happening. It is illegal for a person to convert from Islam to Christianity and to be baptized. Baptisms have to be done in secret.
M: The house as the physical meeting place for a church is not really the issue. There is no problem with a church meeting in a house, park, or elsewhere. The real issue is the definition of the church. Is what is meeting in the house a church?
Are moderate Muslims apostate regarding what the Qur’an teaches?
P: Most Muslims throughout the world today are liberal/moderated. They do not believe the Qur’an to the letter. There is a real difference between moderates and extremists/fundamentalists in Islam. Of course, true Christians are all fundamentalists in the sense that we are looking at the Bible as the only infallible guide to faith and life. Many Muslims do not follow the Qur’an this way and cannot be considered fundamentalists.
M: The greatest failure of the international media is in its dealing with Islam. People will rarely admit to being fundamentalists if you ask them about it. Here is the real question that must be posed to anyone who is Muslim: Is it not your obligation as a Muslim to wish for, hope for, and contend for the universal rule of the Qur’an and Islam over all humanity. All true Muslims will affirm that this is their goal. But the way in which this universal submission is to come about, however, is a debate within the Islamic community. Western media fails to ask this question. True Islam defines the world into the world of Islam and the world of war wherein the struggle is to bring the world under the Qur’an’s rule. The real question about this in regards to terrorism is the means by which this happens.
If any Christian is asked as to whether it is our obligation to see the gospel proclaimed all over the world, our answer has to be yes.
G: There is a danger regarding the fundamentalist/moderate terminology that comes from lifting terms out their historical context and applying them elsewhere. Historically, fundamentalists were those Christians who affirmed fundamental biblical truths like the virgin birth, the resurrection, and so on. Somehow this has been misused and applied to those Muslims who throw bombs and so on.
M: Martin Marty defines fundamentalism as anything that opposes modernity. If this is so, then everyone who believes something is a fundamentalist. Today, anyone who believes in something absolutely can be called a fundamentalist under this definition.
G: There was a time that most Christians believed that the whole world must believe in Christ and, rightly or wrongly, that it is okay to use force to promote the gospel. Thus, to the Muslim mind, because they believe America is a Christian nation, Muslims are no more committed to force than Christians are. They want to know why, if we have troops in their land, a modern crusade is not happening. This comes from an unfortunate conflation of America and the church.
M: When we speak of Christianity in geographical terms, as if there are some Christian countries and some Muslim countries, we play into this misunderstanding.
Does the evangelical church exist as a faithful witness to the world? Is it healthy, can it be more healthy?
M: Peter says the church’s existence can only be explained by the gospel — let the essence of what unbelievers can accuse you of be that you are a Christian. We should therefore stand out from the culture in gospel ways. We should not be odd, except insofar as we are faithful to the gospel. Unfortunately, we often catch the attention of the world for things not related to the gospel. Some churches are doing a great job and have a powerful witness. Where we confuse Christ and culture, we confuse the gospel.
G: Our churches must labor to be places of truth and love. A besetting temptation is for the church to become a place of self-indulgence. Some churches are doing better than others. The goal should be to hold up the truth in a loving way. We must manifest love within and without the congregation. As a Californian, my sense is that so many in our society are lonely. So many neighborhoods are not neighborhoods. People are looking for community and family. By being a community the church can be a great witness.
P: John says that Jesus came in grace and truth (John 1:14). Is the church healthy? The question answers itself. If the church exists as the company of the believers called out of darkness into light, if it exists in this way universally, it is always healthy because Jesus is building it. The question is not what church are you a member of. Are you the church, the company called out of darkness? In that sense we are always healthy and never truly divided.
How does our view of eschatology affect how we interact with culture?
G: As a historian, you can see that the dominant Protestant eschatology of the 17th–early 20th centuries was postmillennialism, which says there will be a long period of peace and prosperity before Christ returns. This eschatology does seem to fit in well with the European and American experience in those eras as they prospered economically, scientifically, and so forth. Later in the 19th century, as American Christianity found itself assaulted by biblical criticism and Darwinism, the church began shifting massively to a premillennial, pessimistic eschatology. Many began withdrawing from society. There is definitely a correspondence between cultural optimism or pessimism and the view we hold.
To be honest, there are biblical verses that are pessimistic and some that are optimistic about the future, so eschatology is a difficult matter. That is why I am an amillennialist.
M: We are reminded in this discussion that all of us are so situated in our times that we turn to Scripture to discover what will get us through the day. If we were Christians in Nazi Germany, we would not probably be postmillennialists but would be wondering if the church would survive.
I’m a classical premillennialist. I’m not a dispensationalist. But the essential thing is that we recognize that our view of culture and eschatology are interrelated. You will likely be a cultural pessimist if you are an extreme dispensationalist. Of course, we have a cultural obligation, but we do not believe that the culture is the means by which the kingdom comes on earth.
G: Sometimes we derive from eschatology certain claims and conclusions that are not valid. Some say we must be premillennialists because this eschatological view is a stimulus for evangelism. Premillennialism can provide this stimulus, but the missionary movement was actually started by postmillennialists. Let us be careful about stating the impact of our eschatological views on our practice.
P: Some say our eschatology drives or determines everything. But whatever our millennial position, we need to remember our obligation in this world. Our eschatology should not drive everything. I am sitting with people who have different positions, but all of us are driven to spread the gospel of Christ. We so often forget about the second coming of Christ and that it can happen today or tomorrow. We need to come away from this imminence with an urgency to proclaim the gospel to our families and everyone we meet. I have a sign on the back of my study door that says “perhaps today” in order to remind me of Christ’s soon return.
What about Israel?
G: As Bible-believing Christians, we must first see what we agree on. We can all agree that Israel exists and that it should be protected. Its existence, however, gives it no right to deal unjustly with its Arab neighbors. We shouldn’t take such sides that we come off as those who do not support justice and the rights of people. Personally, I see no promise of God that Israel will be restored as a nation-state in fulfillment of prophecy. I believe Ephesians 2 and other passages make it clear that the church does not supplant Israel but that it is the fulfillment of Israel. To want to build the temple again today is to want to rebuild the wall between Jew and Gentile that was torn down in Jesus.
M: I am not a dispensationalist, and I hold to a covenant theology. I do believe that there is a future for Israel, theologically defined. We need to be careful about not associating the Israel of God with the secular state of Israel. That is a category error on the part of many evangelicals. God has made promises to the true Israel that will be so clearly realized within the church that the world will see it. The Jewish people will respond so greatly to the gospel that it will be a scandal to the world. There are not two peoples of God but only one, and it is fulfilled in the church. But in the church it is such a fulfillment that it is plain that Christ is the reason for all this.
P: This is not an easy matter for anyone. John Murray held that there is a future hope of salvation for ethnic Israel and Dr. Sproul affirms a future for them as well. Calvin may have even said something similar. It is difficult to define what an ethnic Jew is anymore. There has been so much intermarriage that there are so many people who have at least a little Jewish blood in them. Ultimately, if God intended the future of Israel to be a simple matter, He would have made it simple. We should trust Him that there is a future for His people who trust Christ and we should be faithful to our callings. I know this is obvious. Sometimes the panmillennialist position (everything will pan out in the end), when it comes to Israel especially, is the most tenable view.
M: This question is important, but however these things turn out, they will not point backward to how glorious that former age of old covenant Israel was but to the glory of Christ and the glory of Christ throughout the ages.
G: Whatever we believe about a large future conversion of the Jews, let us not lose sight of our duty today to preach to the Jews. There are Jews being converted, and we should not evade our responsibility to call Jews to faith in Jesus because of some future hope of mass conversion.
What people groups will make up the people of God in the end?
M: All of them. There will be a reversal of Babel and the curse, and all languages will in unity praise the Lord.
P: Before the United Nations existed, the church existed. If you visit churches all around the world, people from every tribe and tongue are gathered. People from all nations are coming into our churches today. We should thank God for the promise He is fulfilling in our midst.