Freedom and the Will and the Church

Once each month a group of friends– people from our church, and other friends not involved in church– get together at the sweetest brewery in town (Function Brewing: revived brick building, maple floors, great beer) and haggle through an issue of the day. We’ve discussed topics like Suffering, Race Relations, Power & Authority, Homosexuality, Trinitarian Theology, Ghosts, Anger, you name it.

This morning I got a text from one of the new guys who just had a big discussion with his friends on the topic of freedom of the will. I texted him back. A rather long response to be typing with my thumbs on an iPhone. My “shoot from the hip” thoughts on freedom of the will are below. Perhaps these will stir up your own considerations, or rekindle your sense of community desire and commitment…

A discussion on “Freewill” all hinges on your understanding of the notion of “free”. What is “freedom” ultimately?— Is it the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want? If this is the case, then our freedom is then contingent on both our “wanting” and our ability to actually get/do what we “want”. If this then is the case, then the conversation about free will must necessitate a conversation about human desire, and even whether our desires themselves, or our ability to desire ultimate good, are in line with what “goodness” actually is.

If freedom is the ability to choose that which we desire, then I must admit that we do have a certain amount of freedom, yet even that is boundaried and shaped by our circumstances as well as our capacities to gain what we desire. If freedom is the ability to choose that which is good, then I must confess that when I honestly examine my own heart (aka “desires”), if I were left to my self, without the extra nos (“outside of me”) intervention of an ultimately good and powerful being who has the power, desire, and will to reshape my ability to desire, I would never choose that which is good. Even when I seemingly chose the “good” (eg helping others, caring for the environment, etc), self-oriented fixation on the pleasing of my own desire, propping up of my own deficiency, exercise of power over others, would always weasel in. Thus, left to myself, any good that I choose would become corrupted by Self. In which case, I must then ask, “what kind of freedom is it that is enslaved to the pleasing or justification of one’s own desire?”

Further, this question also brings up another dynamic of freedom, one that is fairly recent to western thought since introduced by Kant, and this is one of the idea of “autonomy.” Is “freedom” the same thing as “autonomy”? And is “autonomy” even a good thing, something that is inherent in human design? I would argue that it is indeed not good; however, it has become one of the primary drivers of our current culture- both inside and outside of the church.

“I decide what is best for me.” “I am my own authority.” “Just me and Jesus.” “I think, therefore I am, therefore I can be utterly independent of any one, any institution, and community, any tradition, all of those are suspect and come under submission to the autonomous self.”

Although perhaps not inherent within the idea of “freedom,” the above mindset has become the paradigm that many approach the notion of “freedom” with. And, this also is why “church” has become for many a “food court” for the autonomous self, who is under no authority, to consume and get their feet wet with no reciprocal obligation or commitment to a real church organism AND organization.

Certainly, human community should not be some huge complex co-dependent community, people should be appropriately “differentiated,” but this is far from the notion of “autonomy” or “freedom” that has become the ideal in our present generation. But, healthy “personal differentiation” (or boundaries of knowing where your Self ends and another person’s Self begins) has become overtaken and exaggerated by our hyper-individualistic tendencies further exacerbated by a tech age that facilitates and encourages solipsism. This is so because “autonomy”/”freedom” fundamentally has come to connote Self over and against commitment and submission to the common good, which leads to lack of commitment, lack of unity, and a bunch of lonely people wanting relationship yet medicating themselves with the “aura” of community.

And, this is where I see our obsession with autonomy leaving this current generation. I meet person after person, couple after couple (some whose relationships are falling apart), who say they want “community,” “relationship,” “vulnerability,” etc. yet when these things actually require something of them… “peace out,” they’re gone. The reason why is that true “community,” real “relationship,” intimate “vulnerability,” is not something that we can merely consume or splash around in the shallows with. Our generation has created cliches out of these concepts in order to suit their desires (not for true transformation which ultimately requires the pushing in to conflict and pain under Christ’s leadership), but for an easy, emotional therapy, a soothing of their anxiety so they can continue functioning as autonomous Selves, with no attachments holding them back, no commitments restraining their options, no boundaries restricting their attempts at immediate gratification of desire, and no obligations to an institution bigger than themselves requiring them to sacrifice personal preference for the sake of the “community” they so long to have surrounding them.

And, this also is another key to the “aura of community.” No longer do people in our culture see the necessity to become a part of a community, for them to enter in to belong; instead, this has been exchanged for the expectation that the community is meant to curve in around them, their desires, their schedules, their needs, their tastes become the all important priority for the community of faith. And, so churches have learned to strategize and create program after program, make change after change to suit the constantly fluid desires of the consumeristic American mindset. And, so we see a schizophrenic theological and ecclesiological landscape, of churches creating their own individualistic confessions and practices to appeal to the masses who expect a food court filled with options, each courting them, personally.

There no longer remains the calling of the community to the person, requiring something of the person to become a part of the community. This smells of heavy-handed authority because it obligates and limits personal autonomy for the sake of the church community’s mission and priorities qua Jesus’ missional church.

Give over, submit, our individualistic autonomies for the real freedom that comes with will and desire renewed by the God who calls us into the true and good community of Jesus’ church? No way. This is not what our generation wants. I’ll stick with the aura of community, thank you very much. Give me the cliche, give me the shallows.

Ruth and Boaz: Imaging God’s Kindness

I recently sent this message to people involved in the church I pastor– Hope Pres, in Bloomington, IN. My hope is that our body grows in desire for and knowledge of the Scriptures, especially in a culture that exalts personal autonomy as one of its most powerful idols…

“You should be listening to preachers other than me.

Good preachers. People who know the Bible. Who know how to interpret and allow God’s Word to challenge our personal and cultural presuppositions and blind spots. Because, ya’ll, we got ’em. If you deny this, then I would venture that your very denial is a blind spot that needs to be unpacked.

One of my favorite to listen to is Scott Sauls at Christ Presbyterian, Nashville.

I went to listen to a podcast this morning on a title I thought looked interesting: “For the Love of Widows and Orphans.” And, I discovered 2 things: 1) the sermon was on Chapter 2 of the book of Ruth; and, 2) it was given by a man I dearly love and emulate, Prof Jerram Barrs of Covenant Seminary— one of the most gentle and Christ-like people I have ever met.

All of you should listen to this sermon. But, especially you ladies who are engaged in the Women’s Studies on the Book of Ruth with Hope Pres. The sermon helps you grow in knowing how to read and apply the Bible— not as a book of random stories tossed together, or a collection of wisdom sayings to take or leave at your discretion. But, we see the way in which God has revealed himself in history, re-shaping lives, and redeeming past cultures and present lives through grace.

And as Christians, people of the book, our faith is not rooted in ourselves, nor the wisdom of the “spirit of the age”; instead, our faith, our entire worldview is grounded in the authority and power of God’s Word, and how this shows us the very heart and plan of God all fulfilled in the person and ministry of Christ. It’s imperative that we learn how to read, trust, and apply this Word as individuals and as a community of faith.

This desire to grow, willingness to submit to God’s Word, and pursuit of the knowledge of God through the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit in the community of Christ’s church are dynamics that are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of, and truster-in Jesus Christ.

I am constantly praying for all of you that God might give you the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, with the result that the eyes of your hearts are enlightened so that you would really know in your gut and daily life the hope to which he has called you, the riches you are to him as his glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable vastness of his great and glorious power toward you all as those who trust in him.

Perhaps this sermon will be an encouragement in this grace-refinement process in your lives.”

Leadership, Authority, and Church Governance

note: This is a response to David Fitch’s blog that a friend of mine passed on to me the other day. I could have written so much more— getting into the details, etc. but I had to cut myself off. Will likely come back to this topic of leadership and authority at a later time.
The leadership thing is big. We need it, a group needs it, the church needs it, but how does leadership function in “real time”? Leadership necessarily involves authority, to deny this fact or reject the truth that the church and her leaders have authority is naïve and neglects the Bible itself. Yet, how is this authority to function?
I love the case study Fitch gives of a leader presenting his/her process to the group for input and interaction. This could work well in a small group setting like a Local Community, the Local Community leader forum, or a Session (the group of elders in a Presb church). It’s in groups like these where all the members are equally engaged in seeking the Lord in prayer and the Scriptures and receiving grace from Him through these means. The trouble is when we try and apply dynamics that are intended to function in a small group of equally committed leaders, into a group of people where some may be committed, some may be on the outskirts, some may be suspicious, some may even be malicious (even unintentionally so), or some may be committed and sincerely devoted to the Lord and the community yet lacking any solid theological/scriptural/Christian-life foundation for guiding a voice of wisdom. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, so if one has no fear or knowledge of God and His Redemptive-historical self-revelation in the Scriptures, and thus no notion of the gospel of grace applied to his own heart, how could a Christian community look to this person for guidance and input into the missional direction they ought to take, and submit to them— even if their voice is one of several?
This is not to deny that the Holy Spirit can speak through anyone, even an ass (Numbers 22:28). And, a godly leader will seek to hear God’s wisdom in anyone’s input, even if that input is delivered abrasively or without grace or significant biblical/theological knowledge. Yet, because of a lack of one or more of the following: godliness, maturity, whole-life wisdom flowing from the gospel of grace, or commitment to the community—this person’s input (even as a beloved member of the community), ought not have as much gravitas as the insights of others. This is why Paul is so thoughtful as to the type of people who ought to be set aside for the calling of elder. On one hand Paul writes that the one who aspires to the office of overseer desires a noble task (1 Tim 3:1), thus affirming the desire to influence and speak into church direction, vision, and leadership. Yet, at the same time Paul also cautions against ordaining those who are a “recent convert, lest he be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil,” (1 Tim 3:6). Spiritual authority to lead is a real thing, its a heavy thing, and for those who lack wisdom and maturity to rely on and apply the gospel of grace received by faith alone to their heart idols and tempermental tendencies, being recognized by others as having spiritual authority is not only a destructive path for the church, but a self-destructive path for that ill-equipped or immature individual, see Paul’s warnings to his young delegate Timothy in 2 Tim 3 and 4: “…they will have the appearance of godliness but deny its power…always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth…the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will acumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” While we affirm the reformation (and biblical!) principle of a priesthood of all believers (cf. 1 Peter 2), we also must affirm that not every priest is called to lead.
I’m not so much concerned about the inevitable conflict of leadership (this ought to come with any human relationship, and is a part of God’s toolbox for refining his people by grace), but I am concerned about people being given more authority to speak in to leading Christ’s church than they ought to have. Seeking input from everyone, consensus from everyone, leadership from everyone can actually be a very troubling thing, not just for a church but for any organization. Organizationally— for someone to use influence responsibly and well for the sake of the organization, they need to understand and completely own that organization’s guiding purpose, values, foundational principles, and practices— this goes for Caterpillar, Google, and even the church, just from a practical standpoint. Thus, while all members of a church ought to have a voice into the life and leadership of the church, these voices will have varying degrees of amplification based on the life of godliness, wisdom, and personal knowledge of Christ through prayer and Scripture that the speaker’s life displays— this is what we call maturity. Additionally, personal commitment to the particular community is vital for one to have a voice in helping to shape and guide it.
In the American system of representative democracy, we are meant to have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people— people are not meant to serve government, but government is meant to serve the people and be developed from that same populace. The qualifications to govern well cannot include every human living within the borders of our nation. There are certain people (perhaps a majority of people), who simply do not have the knowledge, skills, wisdom, social thoughtfulness, disposition, etc. that could make them competent to work with others in the detailed governing of our nation. Further, the sheer number of people and the difficulties resulting from this should every one person have a voice into every governing decision that needs to be made on a daily basis, could lead to either chaos or an eventual tyrrany of a vocal few. As a result, we function through the process of representative democracy— where people choose to elect who they deem the most qualified representatives on their behalf. And, these elected officials are not meant to have achieved a higher level of value, significance, and power from a hiarchical sense. Instead, their position affords them the opportunity to serve others at a greater capacity, under social contract with the people who recognized their qualifications and elected them to office in the first place. All of this is laid out in the authoritative document for the United States’ system of governance— the Constitution.
This system is not meant to be a model for the church, instead our system of American government finds it’s bearings through the biblical model of the church, actually finding significant roots in Scottish Presbyterianism. Yet, in the system of church governance or authority, how are congregations supposed to recognize the most qualified among them?— we look to our spiritual authority, the Scriptures for this. Who trains potential leaders and presents them to a congregation for consideration?– we look to our authoritative document for life and doctrine, the Scriptures. How are these leaders to govern and lead Christ’s church?– we look to the Scriptures.
This could get so much longer… so I’ll conclude.