Results tagged “contextualization” from Reformation21 Blog

Doing Doctrine Pastorally?


As Reformed churches face an array of social challenges and pastoral concerns, I have found the idea spreading that we must "do" doctrine pastorally. That is, we must decide the Bible's teaching based on how we think it will impact our hearers. Most recently, we see this occurring with respect to men and women struggling with homosexual desires. The doctrine in question does not concern homosexual behavior, on which evangelicals are agree, but on how the Bible understands same-sex orientation (SSA). In my opinion, the Bible's actual teaching is not seriously in doubt. The desire or orientation toward homosexual sin is not categorically different than other impulses to sin. Not only are we not to engage in the sinful behavior, but we must also mortify the desires toward the sin in question. Jesus even put his emphasis on the inward condition over the overt sinful acts:

"What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person" (Mt. 15:18-20).

The same focus on sinful desire is found in James 1:14-15: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin." (The words for desire - epithumia - does not mean temptation, as is being said, but clearly relates to an inward orientation.)   According to Jesus and James, not to multiply other biblical citations, in order to combat sinful actions one must purify the heart.

Given the clarity of the biblical data, it may seem surprising that many purportedly Bible-believing people take a differing view when it comes to same sex attraction. When it comes to this struggle (and apparently only this one), we change our approach. Instead of mortifying homosexual desires by the power of God through the means of grace, in this one case we tell people that while they must not act on their impulses they may still "flourish" within an SSA identity.

At this point in the conversation I find myself being the socially offensive one by asking, "But isn't that contrary to what the Bible says?" Almost invariably, the reply will speak of the enormous psychological suffering SSA people have experienced, and often an accusation that if people like me had their way we would subject all such people to electric shock therapy (I promise, I have never electrically shocked anyone, though I have threatened to do so when my teenage children won't get out of bed!). But then comes the rub: "we want to do our doctrine pastorally." Doing doctrine pastorally seems, therefore, to mean that we shrink back from stating the biblical truth when we think it will hurt.

Against this relevant backdrop, let me offer 3 reasons why while we should certainly be pastoral as we declaring biblical truth, we nonetheless should never "do doctrine pastorally":

  1. We have no right to do so. The idea that pastors have the duty and/or wisdom to compromise Scripture where we think it will be painful is worrisome in the extreme. In some cases, this practice risks earning the label of false teaching. The Bible insists on exactly the opposite: "We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2).
  2. We have Jesus' example. One thing Jesus never did was tone down the requirements of God's Word out of sympathy for his hearers (and let us not think Jesus less sympathetic to struggling sinners than we are). Consider Mark 10:11-12. Jesus had answered the Pharisees' "test" regarding divorce by insisting on the standard of Genesis 2: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mk. 9:9). The disciples were shocked! Mark says they asked Jesus about this privately and Matthew 19:10 shows they thought it better not to marry if one could not divorce. So what did Jesus do? Did he "do his doctrine pastorally," not giving offense or challenging them to hard things? Far from it! Instead, Jesus doubled down, insisting that to divorce unbiblically and remarry was to commit adultery (Mk. 10:11-12).
  3. We have no need to. Not only can we be both doctrinally faithful to Scripture and pastorally compassionate to struggling sinners, but we must always do both together. It is not unloving to speak biblical truth, even in extraordinarily challenging situations, when we follow up with personal encouragement, pastoral support, and a loving commitment to pray. In truth, this is the only really loving thing for us to do.

In conclusion, I wonder if in the face of today's social challenges we have simply lost confidence in God and his Word. Do we think our wisdom higher than that recorded in Scripture? It seems that we may. Do we think the Bible's demands for godliness are just too hard? When it comes to mortifying a confused sexual identity, it seems that many Christians do think it is impossible. If this is our attitude - questioning God's Word and doubting God's power - we have good company in the disciples who followed Jesus. Just after the episode where Jesus taught on marriage, the disciples expressed the impossibility of what Jesus demanded. Jesus' answer to us is not only true but it is the most compassionate and loving position we can espouse: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt. 19:26).

Properly understood, diversity highlights aspects of both the atoning work of Christ (Rev. 5:9) and the economic Trinity (John 3:34-35). The former, in part, underscores the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christ's Church to take the Gospel to the nations. As we do, we will encounter people who are dissimilar aesthetically, culturally, generationally, politically, socio-economically, intellectually, and ethnically. Our cultural blind spots will be exposed, our preferences will be challenged, and our Christ-likeness will increase.

As the diversity conversations continue, there are many areas on which we can focus. How did we get here? That's partly an historical question. There are things in this nation's past that created the division that is clearly evident in the church today. How can we change? That is a strategic inquiry. We must examine our cultural assumptions, hospitality practices, variation within our relationships, and so on. Within the umbrella of that question, one area of supreme importance is that which concerns Lord's Day music. How does our church music promote or prohibit the inclusion of African Americans?

Before briefly examining church music selections, I want to dispel the notion that all one must do is preach the Gospel and leave the results up to God. Although I believe preaching the good news is paramount, no church merely preaches the Gospel. There are cultural accoutrements that may hinder the possibility of growing in diversity. Language (i.e., phrases, Clich├ęs, colloquialisms, etc.) and the ethos of one's church are two examples. If a minister, for instance, states from the pulpit, "We, as conservative Christians, believe that Jesus [insert the good news]," that could cause quite a stir for some African Americans. Like the word diversity, conservative is a buzzword that means different things to different people. In recent history, so-called conservative Christians did not allow African Americans to worship with Anglos on the Lord's Day. Professing conservative Christians helped institute the practice of redlining. Today, it seems that some conservative Christians are more concerned about life inside the womb than life outside of the womb. The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) requires both. (See WLC 135). Language, therefore, can hinder diversity within one's church, and we need each other to help uncover those areas that might prohibit those for whom Christ died from entering our Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. (For an explanation of the ethos element of our church cultures, here is a talk that I gave at the 2016 PCA General Assembly. It may be helpful).

What about our church music may promote or restrict the diversity within our congregations? As I write this, I'm specifically referring to areas that contain a high African American demographic. If the area in which the church building is stationed is predominantly one ethic group, the church-gathered should reflect that. Those areas are decreasing more and more, however. According to some reports, the United States will be a majority-minority nation by 2044. In the meantime, how should we be thinking about church music? Even within the realm of exclusive psalmody, our music can hinder or promote diversity.

One area we must tackle, as it relates to church music, is our assumptions. What do African Americans like and prefer? Based on numerous conversations and multiple Facebook posts, it seems that there is growing consensus, particularly among whites, that African Americans prefer gospel music. That genre of music has a rich heritage within many African American churches. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or African Methodist Episcopal, you can be certain that on the Lord's Day, your souls will be uplifted with a vibrant and biblical choral selection. However, simply because many black churches sing gospel music does not mean all black churches sing gospel music.

Recently, one of our elder candidates and I visited an African American church (an Independent Baptist church). Three things were notable. First, he was one of only about three whites in the entire building. Second, he knew more of the hymns than me. This man happened to be brought up in an Independent Baptist Church. Third, the congregation only sang hymns and they sang them at a slower pace than I'm accustomed to singing them in a PCA setting. You could neither clap your hands nor sway your hips to them! In short, African Americans are as diverse as the color of our skin. We do not have a preference for only one genre of music.

Among some blacks, there is a growing trend to rearrange hymns. The words, "Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace," sound quite different in standard measure on a piano than accompanied by a guitar and played with more of a neo-soul flavor. Consider also the modern hymn "The Power of the Cross" by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Doxa recently rearranged it. You can clearly hear and feel the difference.

All of this is an extended way of saying that we must be careful--in our pursuit of fostering God-glorifying diversity by means of musical selection--not to presume that African Americans necessarily prefer a certain genre of music. Requiring complete cultural assimilation will work against you. Nevertheless, as you ponder potential musical changes in your Lord's Day service, it might be a good practice to speak with African Americans in your community. If they are a part of a congregation, ask them what kind of church music they are used to and/or prefer. Use that as a barometer for any changes you may consider making in your congregation. You can also speak with other African Americans in your denomination or federation. Receive general input from them. I'm certain it will be helpful to the process.

We have highly valued music since the start of our church plant. Not wishing to make assumptions about the genre of music preferred by those who were coming, I asked our members to submit the top 5 church songs that they would like to sing in worship (and, I continue to ask new members this question). From these lists, we then selected some of the songs that we believed were robustly biblical and that we could sing congregationally. In our context, this process has worked quite well. Members of our church feel that they have a hook on which to hang their cultural hats. Music is a terrific way to address--not to ignore--the preferences of the people and love our neighbors as ourselves.