Monday, November 14, 2016

Are you Free NOT to Drink? A guest post by Brett McCracken

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol.

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

Over time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.
Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

A comment by Alan Frow: While I reject a legalistic approach towards alcohol, I've become uneasy about a growing sense of bondage to Christian freedom within our church, particularly as it pertains to alcohol consumption. With that in mind, I asked Brett McCracken, one of Southlands' pastors, if I could re-post his very wise blog on the subject. He has also written a great book on navigating the space between legalism and license more generally, called Gray Matters. You can purchase it at Brett McCracken . I commend it to you. I've chatted with all of the leaders of our discipleship groups that involve alcohol and have asked that for a season they go 'dry'. I also want to suggest that you consider giving up alcohol during Advent to ensure that we are not in bondage to our freedom. Let's not allow our freedom to become a stumbling block for the weak, and let's be sure that our freedom is not an opportunity to indulge the sinful nature. May this season cause us to drink ever more deeply of Christ by His Spirit!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How now shall we heal?

The morning after the seismic announcement of Donald Trump as the new President-Elect of America, I woke up with the verse, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn," running around in my head. (Romans 12:15) My dialogue with God around that verse has been, "Lord, but there are people rejoicing and weeping in the same place! How do we respond to this?" I suspect this is exactly God's point. Presidential elections are always contentious, but I've never witnessed such venomous divisiveness as this one. I appreciated the conciliatory nature of Trump, Clinton  and Obama's post-election speeches, but they seem to have done little to smooth over the yawning ravine in our nation. The damage has been done. The wounds are gaping and septic. 

I gathered with 5 friends in my back yard to pray at 7am that morning. We do this every month, chatting over coffee through a chapter of Tim Keller's book on prayer, and then, well, praying.  This morning though, just 8 hours after the announcement, was quite different. We were candid about how we felt and who we voted for. This may be a uniquely American phenomena, and I like it. Political opinion is a public thing. 

We were all surprised by the results, some pleasantly and with hope, others with an element of shock, and some with grief. None of us expected a Trump win, and especially not a Republican sweep of the House and the Senate. It seemed like small-town, blue-collar America had silently flexed its voting muscle, sending shock waves of change through Washington and the nation. There was a general sense of gladness that the liberal agenda,  strutting with such confidence, had been given a bloody nose. But we were not all in agreement about the actual President-Elect. A number of us had deep concerns about his moral integrity, his ability to listen to wise counsel, and his treatment of minority groups and immigrants who now feel fearful and vulnerable. 

I was fascinated to discover that of the 6 of us, there had been 5 different votes. Only one man had voted for Trump and one for Clinton. The rest wrote in. We were men from three different cultures, in fact 3 different nationalities, ranging from our 30's to our 50's in age. In that circle  the guy who voted for Trump and the guy who voted for Clinton spoke up last, possibly for fear of being judged. Writing in was in some ways the easy answer.  Everyone had voted with a sense of conflict, and everyone, in differing degrees, had a mix of hope and trepidation about the next four years under Trump's leadership.  

Why do I include these personal details when everyone is making global predictions of the situation? Because I am a pastor, and while I care about global trends, I care more about how people respond to them. I'm also tired of trying to predict what the outcome of such decisions are. Some are confidently predicting the end of American Evangelicalism as we know it. Some insist on the demise of the Democratic party. Others the unravelling of the Republican party. Some have pronounced the onset of Armageddon, while still others the birth of a Great American Resurgence. And all these predictions are from Christian leaders! No wonder the Church is so divided and confused. While I can understand the temptation to make such certain statements, I believe a healthy, humble sense of uncertainty around global forecasts is what God requires right now. I care about a circle of 6 men in my back yard, and how they walk out Jesus' one-anothers together in the midst of political disagreement, in a way that mends fractures and heals wounds.

This nation is divided. Who will make the two halves whole? We will, and we must. We are called to be reconcilers and peacemakers. How now shall we heal, in the light of this seismic event?

1. Live with God's Sovereignty as our sanity 

"At the end of time, I Nebuchadnezzar, raised my head to heaven and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High, I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion, his kingdom endures from generation to generation." 

These are the words of the pagan king who turned to God after denying him and persecuting His people.  God's sovereignty enables us to honor a human leader we may not have voted in, knowing that he or she will ultimately answer to God. It also enables us to speak truth to power, because we do not walk in the fear of man but of God. If we are hopeful, God's sovereignty keeps us from triumphalism  reminding us that no human leader can be the King that we need. If we are despairing, this verse  reminds us of the Sovereign power of God to change a leader's heart, no matter how hard it is, and to restore sanity to anyone who looks to Him

God's sovereignty means that he can change a man like Trump and also use a man like Trump. He may be used in the hand of God to stem the liberal tide and restore robust  nationhood. If this is the case I will rejoice, but have concern for the rising tide of cultural Christianity that confuses the kingdom with patriotism. Trump may be used in the hand of a Sovereign God as an instrument of judgment upon this nation. If that is the case, then the Church will be tested and will come out purer and stronger. If God is Sovereign, then no politician is Satan and no politician is Savior. Let's live that way, knowing that God ultimately raises kings and brings them down. 

2.  Live with God's incarnation as our mandate 

God is on His throne. But God got off his throne and came to earth, to love unlovely people who were different from Him. This is an equally important truth to remember. In the Church, because the Cross of Christ has reconciled us in our diversity, we need to give each other space to rejoice and mourn this decision without judgment. Remember that if the Roman government had been overthrown in Jesus time, Simon the Zealot would have rejoiced, and Matthew the tax collector would have mourned. Jesus seemed to be okay with having both guys as his disciples. So should we. Towards outsiders, to be like Christ is to walk towards those who think differently from us and love them.  We can be larger than our own political opinions. There is a larger call to love not just our neighbor but our enemies. Are you delighted with our new President-Elect? Go and love someone who is devastated. There are many women, people in the LGBTQ community, racial minorities and  immigrants who feel incredibly vulnerable. Go and empathize.  Are you fearful of our new President-Elect? Go and love someone who is excited. There are many who have felt  judged and condemned for holding conservative opinions these past 8 years who are now glad to have a strong leader pushing against the liberal agenda. Go and listen to them.  Let's all climb off the throne of our water-tight opinions, and humble ourselves as peacemakers. 

 3. Stand on the common ground of Biblical Unity. 

As Christians, we will disagree politically until Christ returns. The solution is not to stand on our opposing political platforms and reach towards each other across the ravine. It's to go and stand together on an older, more solid platform. "On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!" This doesn't mean we drop our political convictions. It just means we hold them more lightly than our Biblical creeds. The fact is that political parties and platforms are fickle. They will shift, shake and  crumble under our feet,  but  Christ's kingdom will never be shaken. A Biblical faith empowers us to stand with the political stranger on the solid platform of Christ.  

So the 6 of us shared earnestly and honestly, with freedom to disagree on what we hoped and feared about our new President -Elect. Then we prayed through the Lord's prayer, standing upon the truths that bound us together eternally. We are adopted sons of the same Father. Our true country is in heaven. And our great desire is for His eternal kingdom to come here on earth.  

It was Christian Citizenship at its best.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

"I want our church to be a safe place." A guest post by Peter Frow.

I want our church to be a safe place.

I want it to be a place where the un-churched and those who are groping after the truth or seeking help in their distress, may come and not feel any trace of finger-pointing Pharisaism. A place where the members walk always with a profound sense of God’s grace, and knowing that there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, are careful to abstain from condemnatory attitudes and conduct.

For the great good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to clean up our lives in order to come to Jesus. We come to Jesus and He then makes us right with God, both as we come to faith in Him and then by an ongoing process of becoming like Him in our behaviour and character. Thus the church must open its arms wide to sinners of all descriptions, for the Great Physician comes for the sick and not for the healthy.

The Gospel is inclusive in its essence.

Yet just as we may not exclude anyone on the grounds of race, gender, nationality, age or any other criterion, for all are in need of God’s salvation, so too we may not exclude anyone from the pursuit of holiness, without which no-one will see the Lord. We may not presume to lower the bar for anyone, for we all alike must press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. It is God who sets the bar and it is nothing less than complete Christ-likeness.

I want our church to be one that demonstrates the Christ-like ability to say not only, “I do not condemn you,” but also, “Go and sin no more.”

A church where one is encouraged to do what is not pleasing to God is not a safe place.

A church where one is misled as to the truth of God is not a safe place.

I want our church to be a safe place.