Arnold Kling Throws Down

In this post about Joseph Heinrich’s Secrets of Our Success, he quotes Heinrich:

Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations, though I’m hoping that we get deeper insights into human nature and cultural evolution this can improve. Until then, we should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design “variation and selection systems” that will allow alternative institutions or organizational forms to compete. We can dump the losers, keep the winners, and hhopefully gain some general insights during the process.

Kling responds:

Yes, Professor Henrich, we have a term for that. We call it “the market.”

Division of Tasks, but not of the Spirit

Reading Acts 6 for another post, I noticed something that is not new, but it stood out to me and I wanted to write it down.

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. …

8And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

Stephen was chosen by the other believers in Jerusalem to serve tables – that is, to see that the needy among the church were cared for. Yet he was able to defend the gospel against its enemies so powerfully that they took him to the authorities and executed him. And in verse 2, the language in Greek suggest the twelve had been serving tables, but it was too much for them to continue that and keep on serving the Word.

Stephen was not too low to proclaim the gospel, and the apostles were not too lofty to bring dinner to widows. There was division of tasks so that every need was met, physical and spiritual; but there was no division of the Spirit’s power.

Deserve or Need?

A few weeks ago, among the tweets from “Bible Students Say…“, I noticed two tweets had a common theme.

This got me thinking about the use in our culture of the word deserve. Maybe it’s anecdotal, but I seem quite often to hear that word used in place of need. “Everyone needs a place to live” becomes “everyone deserves a place to live” for example.

This is not a harmless drift in word definitions, either. Need is a positive (i.e., descriptive of the world as it is, not necessarily as it ought to be), factual statement. Deserve is a normative (how the world ought to be) statement with philosophical and emotional ties to ideas of justice. In addition, needs have gradations of importance: “I need to pay this bill before my cable gets cut off” is far different from “I need air or I will die” – see Maslow’s hierarchy. Desserts (things deserved, not sweets) do not have any such gradations or hierarchies.

Another distinction is that needs can exist apart from actions and relationships. If there were only one person in the universe, they would still need sustenance, but in that situation it doesn’t make sense to say they deserve anything, because from whom would they deserve it? There are always two (or more) persons involved when we talk about desserts. I can deserve something from you only if I fulfill an agreed-upon condition or you deprive me of what is rightly mine without cause.

So why write a philosophical post about two words and the ideas they represent? Because I think we lose something when we redefine needs as desserts. If everything I need I deserve, there is no room left for compassion, empathy, or generosity. In short, there is no room left for kindness or love. This is especially important when using these words in regards to theology. All through Scripture God describes himself as loving, kind, compassionate, gracious, and merciful. Yet without a distinction between needing and deserving – if we no longer need but deserve forgiveness, grace, and mercy – then God cannot rightly be said to be any of those things. Furthermore, he is no longer deserving of praise, because you cannot worship one who has only given you what is justly yours.

The tweets quoted above are laughable to those who are familiar with proper theology, but the thoughtless use of words they represent is not funny. Our thinking is only as broad as our vocabulary, and if this is the vocabulary of a generation, then there is much work to be done by Christ’s followers who wish to make headway against evil in that generation. The words of Satan blur the lines between ideas. The word of God is sharper than a sword.


Review: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church

That is the title of a book from David Black of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Black voiced a lot of the same thoughts and concerns I’ve been wrestling with about the institutional church. It’s encouraging to see these ideas coming from an academic and in a form that is easy for every believer to access.

I especially appreciated his arguments for unity among the church, particularly in regards to decision-making. “[O]ur man-made method of decision-making… undermines the example of the early church. … We vote, and leave an aggrieved minority. The early church waited upon the Spirit, and it produced a unified whole.” (Location 596)

His comments on the Lord’s supper are also excellent: “Other forms of communion (broken crackers and tiny cups), while perhaps more practical, fail to give significance to the importance Paul attached to the oneness aspect of the Supper.” (Location 672)

I started this book a bit skeptical since it was written by a seminary professor, but I was pleasantly surprised that Black set aside the filter of how-it’s-always-been-done and compares church institutions to what is found in the New Testament.

Preaching is a Technology

By “preaching” in this post, I’ll be referring to any practice similar to a lecture at a church gathering.

I’ve been wondering lately where the church tradition of weekly (or some other regularly scheduled) preaching originated. Preaching in the New Testament is proclaiming the death, resurrection, and lordship of Christ to unbelievers in public places. Among the church, the primary transfers of knowledge were informal gathering, reading the apostles’ teachings, and confrontation of sin and error.

So how did preaching come to mean lecturing on the Scriptures to those who already believe? My conjecture is that as Christianity became first acceptable and then the majority religion, the problem arose of how to pass on knowledge of the scriptures to the multitudes of new converts. Copies of Scripture were scarce, and many people were illiterate. To overcome these problems, there arose a technology whereby a few people studied those rare manuscripts, then publicly read and explained them. The technology was abused, then again put to good use, and today is becoming obsolete. The practitioners of this technology gave it the term preaching.

The Abuse

Many of the new attendees in the suddenly successful Christianity were cultural converts only, not interested in discipling and being discipled in the manner shown by the apostles. Church leaders, under political pressure to enroll everyone in the new religion and tempted by pride to maintain power and influence over so many, ignored the more challenging parts of the New Testament (“If anyone would be my disciple, let him take up his cross…”). The apostles’ model demands changing priorities and being vulnerable, things unregenerate people are not fond of. What our hard hearts and world-conforming minds do understand is religious piety – we want to change ourselves and pay our own penalty when we mess up.

Thus we see the roots of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: religious rituals, overseen by professionals, teaching that a man’s standing before God is mainly that man’s responsibility. Part of the ritual was a reading from Scriptures (or other church writings) in Latin, the language of Rome – even in places where that language wasn’t understood by the attendees.

The Reform

The reformers of the 16th century rightly criticized this obfuscation of Scripture, and began reading and teaching it in the local languages. At a time when many were illiterate and almost none had access to books or even a Bible, renewed public reading and exposition was very important and did much to spread the gospel. It also returned most Protestant churches to a doctrine of salvation as an unmerited act of grace and gift from God.

The Reformation removed two of the four problems with Catholicism mentioned above, but by and large continued the traditions of ritualistic gatherings and professional clergy. At the time, a clerical class seemed necessary, and indeed a large number of well-studied teachers was needed because of the limited communications available.

The Obsolescence

LamplighterLike lamplighters of the 19th century, preachers played an important role in churches that were dedicated to learning from Scripture. But as they did with lamplighters and many other careers, modern tools are shrinking the need for professional Christian lecturers. I think this is one of the few positive lessons to learn from mega-churches: a lecturer (or preacher if you will) can address 10,000 or 10 million as easily as 10. In addition, most believers in developed countries are literate and wealthy enough to afford Bibles, books, and commentaries, or at least an internet connection to access all those things online.

So in light of modern technology, do churches need to simply disband and send everyone home to their iPads? Heaven forbid (seriously)! The blessings of modern communications should mean we have more teachers than ever; every mature believer can be and should be able to teach. Not everyone will have the gift of being able to comfortably address crowds, but the most effective teaching springs from every day experiences that lead to all of us asking questions and answering them from Scripture.

However, I think every household of believers should seriously consider whether hiring full-time teachers or ministers is the best use of the resources that the Lord has entrusted to us. If we hold to the truth, we can be sure that those who only have an “appearance of godliness” will leave and take their donations with them. What will remain will always be enough to carry out the Father’s mission, but it will not sustain unnecessary traditions of men. I don’t think that paying people to prepare lectures is forbidden by Scripture, but neither is it commanded, except perhaps as part of supporting godly elderly men who are past working age (1 Timothy 5:17-18). And I think it is unhealthy to promote the idea that “regular” believers can outsource their good works to professionals. Visiting the sick, imprisoned, widowed, and orphaned is commanded of all disciples.

Listening to a studied, intelligent individual present a thorough explanation of a passage or topic is interesting, instructive, and has its place in learning the Scriptures. Thanks to modern tools, the church needs far fewer of these individuals and that frees up time and money to spread the gospel.

God as Comedian

Os Guinness writes:

The fool maker is the person who (once again) is not a fool at all, but who is prepared to be seen and treated as a fool, so that from the position of derided folly, he or she may be able to bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor that he has no clothes. This, says, Paul, is what God did on the cross. If Jesus was the supreme fool bearer, God is the supreme fool maker. …

And Paul:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 ForJews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God,righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Father, by your grace may I be ready to be called a fool for Your sake.

C. S. Lewis Would Be a Fan of Amazon

At least based on this quote from his autobiography I think he would. It may be that Amazon regained ground for mail-order books that was lost to local and chain retailers:

Every man of my age has had in his youth one blessing for which our juniors may well envy him: we grew up in a world of cheap and abundant books. Your Every man was then a bare shilling, and, what is more, always in stock …. All the money I could spare went in postal orders to Messrs. Denny of the Strand. No days, even at Bookham, were happier than those on which the afternoon post brought me a neat little parcel in dark gray paper. Milton, Spenser, Malory, The High History of the Holy Grail, the Laxdale Saga, Ronsard, Chenier, Voltaire, Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight (both in translations), Apuleius, the Kalevala, Flerrick, Walton, Sir John Mandeville, Sidney’s Arcadia, and nearly all of Morris, came volume by volume into my hands . Some of my purchases proved disappointments and some went beyond my hopes, but the undoing of the parcel always remained a delicious moment. On my rare visits to London I looked at Messrs . Denny in the Strand with a kind of awe ; so much pleasure had come from it. (Surprised by Joy, Chapter IX)

Teaching Is the Conservative Tongues

More conservative evangelicals often criticize Pentecostal traditions for their emphasis on speaking in tongues. They point out (rightly, I think) that too many churches have placed an outsize emphasis on the gift of tongues, removed it from its scriptural context, and used it as a spiritual status symbol.

Monolingual brothers and sisters, there is a speck in your eye, too! (Pardon the many planks in mine as I implore you to examine your works.)

Most evangelical churches today make a similar error, except the gift involved is not tongues but teaching. They place an outsize emphasis on teaching, giving it an enormous part in church gatherings. What’s worse is the millions of dollars spent to enhance this one gift in young men and women. I know of no one with a doctorate degree in speaking tongues – or mercy, or generosity for that matter.

Most churches also remove teaching and preaching from the scriptural context. In the book of Acts, preaching was a public act done for the sake of listening unbelievers, not a lecture delivered to disciples. Preaching was focused on the resurrection of Christ, not series on how to have a better marriage. The epistles command all believers to teach, admonish, exhort, and rebuke one another. Some have more grace in that area and should serve the body by using that gift, and the body should recognize and appreciate them. But that principle applies to all gifts.

Teaching is also the primary spiritual status symbol in most evangelical churches. Those with the gift of teaching are remunerated materially for using their gift, given special titles and authority, and generally praised and elevated above the rest of the body. This may not be true for every congregation where monologue teaching occurs, but it is an all-too-common tendency. In a sense, this error is worse than our Pentecostal friends’, because while they credit the Spirit with the power to speak in tongues, teaching-centric churches tend to credit the teacher’s hard work and experience with a nod to the Spirit for creating the teacher with such awesome potential.

If you believe that the practice of speaking in tongues is harmful to the church, then continue to dialog with Pentecostal believers about your concerns, but I hope you will humbly consider that the same temptation may have overtaken you as well.

Thanks to Eric Carpenter for the inspiration.

Congress Establishes National Omnibus Awareness Day

The House of Representatives today passed the National Omnibus Awareness Day Act by a large majority. The act replaces various awareness days for illnesses, crime victims, occupations, and societal classes with a single day that occurs at a uniform time each year.

“Americans’ social awareness is being stretched thin,” said Rep. Robert Johnson (D-UT). “Nearly every day of the year, ordinary middle-class Americans were being asked to focus some of their precious attention on a different problem, attention that they should be paying to their families, careers, and personal well-being.”

Haylie Graves, president of Americans for Responsible Awareness and one of the authors of the legislation, said in a statement, “We understand the need for activism and raising public awareness, but believe it must be done in a responsible manner. Trying to raise peoples’ awareness of a new issue every other day actually dilutes everyone’s attention and makes each issue seem less notable.”

The new National Omnibus Awareness Day will be the third Saturday of May each year. The bill’s proponents hope that activists for various issues will cooperate and share billboards, radio ads, and 5K walks/runs on that day rather than spread them out throughout the year.

The Senate is also considering a version of a bill to consolidate all awareness months into a single month.

On Palm Sunday, Do We Celebrate or Mourn?

As I think about Palm Sunday, it strikes me as odd that we celebrate it as a good occasion in Jesus’ life, when to him I think it must have been heartbreaking. The people praising him as he entered Jerusalem weren’t singing the praises of the one who would be their atoning sacrifice, the conqueror over sin and death. They were expecting an earthly king, a political ruler, to free them from the yoke of Rome. They thought they knew what their problem was and what God should do about it. They were worshiping a false God of their own conception, even if they named him Jesus.

Maybe on Palm Sunday we should examine our own understanding of God, bring our minds into agreement with Scripture, and repent of the times we worshiped our human expectations of God rather than the one true God.