Phone with graphs and charts

Why I don’t like taking attendance at church

Many of you will have used apps like Jethro and Elvanto to manage your church or ministry group.  As a software engineer, I’m naturally all-in on using technology to make your workflow more efficient.  I will be the first to admit that many features of these apps are quite useful (e.g. I love being able to quickly check online to see what rosters I’m on this week).  However, there’s one aspect of these apps that I actively refuse to participate in: tracking attendance.

Why?  Because I don’t think there is any valid use for a centralised store of church attendance data.  Decentralised is another matter.  If you’re a small-group leader, it may help you to keep a reminder for yourself that someone was away this week so that you can call them and check they’re okay.  What is not needed is for you to add that record to a centralised repository, where it will likely be stored long-term and be accessible to all the church staff.

In my opinion, no good comes of this.

It will be used by some “visionary” pastor to decide which tough sermons drove people away.  It will be used as leverage to emotionally manipulate members with imperfect attendance.  It will be used to prop up a pastor’s pride because the church is growing.  It’s busybodies that need centralised attendance data, not pastors.  Real pastoral ministry gets along fine without it.  If you’re worried that people are “slipping through the cracks”, the solution is better delegation of pastoral care, not micromanaging people’s attendance habits.

There were surely people in Israel and Judah keeping a personal headcount of their own children.  But David’s sin was in creating a centralised record of it all to support his ego (2 Samuel 24).  May God keep us from repeating that mistake.

Irenaeus' Portrait

Irenaeus and the Apostles’ Creed

Many readers will know the Apostles’ Creed, either from reciting it in more traditional church services, or perhaps from singing the recent song “This I Believe” from Hillsong. If you check wikipedia, you’ll read that this creed dates back (at the earliest) to the late-300s AD.

I’m now reading Irenaeus’ book “Against Heresies”.  It has a statement of faith in it that is remarkably close to the Apostles’ Creed (even in the order of doctrines stated).

A snippet from Irenaeus “Against Heresies” Book 1, Chapter 10 (~180AD):

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection of the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race…

It’s not identical to the Apostle’s Creed, but it sounds pretty darn familiar right?  Irenaeus tells us that in his day, this set of doctrines was already held and taught by churches across the known world, including Spain, Gaul (France), Egypt and Libya.  Next time someone tries to tell you that Christianity as we know it was invented in 325AD by Constantine, you’ll know better!

House of Commons

C.S. Lewis on Christianity and Politics

After so much thought about how a Christian ought best to engage with politics, the most helpful comment I have found on the subject is this paragraph from the unanswerable Mr. Lewis:

This raises the question of Theology and Politics.  The nearest I can get to a settlement of the frontier problem between them is this: that Theology teaches us what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, while Politics teaches what means are effective.  Thus Theology tells us that every man ought to have a decent wage.  Politics tells by what means this is likely to be attained.  Theology tells us which of these means are consistent with justice and charity.  On the political question guidance comes not from Revelation but from natural prudence, knowledge of complicated facts and ripe experience.  If we have these qualifications we may, of course, state our political opinions: but then we must make it quite clear that we are giving our personal judgement and have no command from the Lord.  Not many priests have these qualifications.  Most political sermons teach the congregation nothing except what newspapers are taken at the Rectory.

C.S. Lewis, Christian Apologetics, 1945

Are you a politician?  Rejoice that God has given you both goals and guidelines, but has also given you the freedom to put creative energy into the formation of effective policy.  Are you a theologian?  Don’t presume that your conscience is so tender, and your heart so steeped in scripture, that any opinion which seems to you to be common sense must be the only one within the boundaries of godliness.  For to truly shepherd one’s flock in grace is to preach God’s word as far as it goes, and not one millimetre further.

Chatting by the lake

Law, Grace and Nouthetic Counselling of Depression

I have been studying pastoral care this semester, and I came across Jay E. Adams’ work on Christian counselling.  For the most part, I have really appreciated Adams’ critique of Freudian psychoanalysis and the culturally-accepted “medical model” of mental illness.  He argues that depression needs to be understood in biblical categories, in particular, that it is not something that simply seized upon a person from the outside, like catching a stomach bug.  Rather, it is often the result of spiralling unbiblical reactions to a circumstance.  That circumstance may not have been something under the person’s control, but allowing themselves to wallow in despair is.  That is a behavioural response that needs to be addressed biblically.

However, a cautionary word I would add when attempting Adams’ method is that it’s easy to think we’ve understood when we haven’t.  If the goal of nouthetic counselling is to lovingly confront the lies people believe with biblical truths, then it is necessary to understand precisely what those lies are that they believe.  If we don’t do that, we run the very real risk of further overemphasising truths they are already comfortable with, and as a result de-emphasising truths that they are currently doubting.  This has the effect of reinforcing the lie rather than the needed corrective truth!  Not a good outcome at all.

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Shh Finger

Declining to Answer: The Hallmark of Inconsistency

Thinkers can be divided into two groups.  The first group positively insists upon “straight” answers to questions.  The second group does not.  What is a “straight” answer?  It’s not always as simple as “yes” or “no”, because sometimes neither of those is most accurate.  There are five basic responses to a propositional question:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. I don’t know
  4. I don’t accept one or more premises inherent in the question
  5. I decline to answer

The first four responses are “straight” answers, the fifth response (“I decline to answer”) is the essential non-straight answer.  To show you what I mean, let’s take an example question: “are there any cats in this room?”  Either there are cats in the room or there are not – but it can’t be both.  Based on the five categories above, here are four straight answers:

  1. “There are three kittens in the corner.” (Yes)
  2. “The room is completely empty.” (No)
  3. “I am wearing a blindfold.” (I don’t know)
  4. “We are outdoors.” (I don’t accept the premise that we are in a room)

The only other possible response is some form of “I decline to answer the question”.  One example might be “it doesn’t matter whether there are any cats.”  I have not asked whether it matters, I have asked whether they are there.  Maybe I’m allergic to cats, so it matters to me!

Declining to answer is always an attempt to deceive.  If there’s no structural flaw in the question, but a person still doesn’t want to answer, it’s because they know they’ve been caught out.  Thinkers who regularly decline to answer direct questions should make you very suspicious.  Either they are confused by their own self-contradictory views, or they are actively trying to manipulate you.  The one thing they are not doing is looking for the truth.

A child turning on the stove

I love you, that’s why I’m voting “No”

Australia is about to vote on whether or not same-sex marriage should be legalised. What has been very strange for me is to see so many Bible-believing Christians who are seriously considering voting “Yes”.  So I want to leave aside all the tangential, political issues for a moment, and look at the biblical case that homosexuality itself is simply a bad idea.

Romans 1:26-27 says the following:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

According to this passage, a homosexual lifestyle is something that God gives people over to, as a consequence of our continued rebellion.  Theologically, it is part of the “passive wrath” of God.  It is a natural consequence of our continued sexual rebellion, which God allows us to experience so that we will see that sin leads to death.

How then could I, as a Christian, encourage same-sex marriage?  How could I not try and discourage people from something that I consider part of God’s wrath?  If I love them, I will hope that they could be spared from that suffering.  So out of love, I will be voting “No”.

There are many people, very dear to me, who are same-sex attracted.  I will still love them, I will still care about them and I hope I can still have a good relationship with them.  But I cannot, in good conscience, encourage them towards a lifestyle that I think is deeply harmful to them.  I love them far too much for that.

Hebrew Vowels Chart

Hebrew Parsing: Use the Consonants, Luke!

Doing things the hard way…

After a semester of Hebrew, and being almost through the first-year textbook, I suspect that I’ve been doing some things an unnecessarily difficult way.  I’ve been trying to memorise paradigm tables, including the diverse and erratic permutations of all the vowels.  But anyone who has studied Hebrew in any depth knows that vowels hold an interesting position in the language.  The text of the OT was originally written using only the consonants.  The vowel markings were added much later by the Masoretes (allegedly somewhere between 500-1000AD).  This has led to some historic disputes among protestants about whether the vowel points should be considered a part of the “inspired” text.  I recently stumbled across a site called which contends that only the consonantal text is truly a part of the inspired Tanakh.

I’m certainly not going to try and settle that debate here, but instead I want to suggest a practical theory that flows out of such historical knowledge.  Native speakers of modern Hebrew (and Arabic) get by just fine without any vowels.  Apparently ancient Hebrew scribes didn’t feel they would be depriving future generations of anything critical by recording the OT using only consonants.  So the question is, were the ancient Hebrew scribes able to live without the vowels only because they knew the vowels by heart from their oral tradition?  Or is it possible that they felt the consonantal text itself contained enough grammatical detail that vowels were genuinely unnecessary?
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Man Grieving on Bench

The Crisis Catechism

Sometimes everything seems to go wrong at once. Worse, sometimes it feels like it’s all my own fault! This can be pretty crushing emotionally. At those times, I ask myself this series of questions which I call “the crisis catechism”. It’s simple to answer, because every answer is “yes”. It’s goal is to turn your attention to Jesus, instead of to your own circumstances, shortcomings, failures or faults.

Is Jesus Christ the enthroned King and sovereign Lord over all creation (Colossians 1:16)?

Did Jesus Christ die on a cross, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18)?

Were all your sins, past, present and future, laid upon him and permanently dealt with as he died on that cross (Hebrews 10:14)?

When God adopted you into His family, did He know fully and completely who you would become and what He was getting himself into (Ephesians 1:3-6)?

Did Christ rise from the dead, conquering every enemy who would keep you from him, whether the grave, the devil or your own flesh (Colossians 2:13-15)?

Did Christ stake his honour and glory on the promise that he will never cast away anyone that comes to him (John 6:37-40)?

Does his steadfast love endure forever (Psalm 118:1-4)?

Does his death in your place take away all unrighteousness and all shame (Romans 10:10-11)?

Does eternal joy in communion with God await you when this life ends (Psalm 16:11)?

Will he who began a good work in you see it through to the very end (Philippians 1:6)?

As you serve his kingdom, will he be with you to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20)?

ARE ALL GOD’S PROMISES “YES” IN HIM (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)?

Do All Speak in Tongues?

There is a commonly held belief that whenever someone is filled with the Holy Spirit, the initial evidence of this is that they speak in tongues.  1 Corinthians 12 is the key chapter on this issue, and I encourage you to read the whole thing in context.  Context alone is enough to make it clear that Paul doesn’t expect everyone who is filled with the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues.  He argues that the church is “one body” even though it has “many members”.  He compares the different gifts people have to different parts of the body.  He writes (verse 15):

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.

It’s a metaphor.  The implication is that if someone says “because I do not speak in tongues, I do not belong to the church,” that would not make them any less a part of the church.  God has given different gifts to different people, so that the church works together as a whole, just as he has given different functions to the hand and the foot, but they work together.
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The Impotence of Secular Christendom

Perhaps the most immoral of all is the injunction to love your enemies.  That I will not do.  I know who my enemies are.  At the moment, the most deadly ones are Islamist theocrats with a homicidal and genocidal agenda.  I’m not going to love them, you go love them if you want.  Don’t love them on my behalf, I’ll get on with killing them, destroying them, erasing them and you can love them.  But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all, it’s a wicked idea, and I hope it doesn’t take hold… What a disgusting order, to love those people!  Destroy them.

– Christopher Hitchens

This is where the difference between Christianity and mere Secular Christendom shines forth.  The Christian says wholeheartedly “we MUST love our enemies!  The Lord Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, and he commands us to do likewise!”  The secularist who has merely inherited the culture of Christian values finds this infuriating and intolerable.

As Islam becomes a primary issue in elections around the world, we need to be reminded that secularism is impotent to address the problem of evil.  Both the atheist-left and the atheist-right can offer no solution.  A secular society that has inherited Christian values will be much better off than a society without them.  But it is not sustainable.  When attacked by true evil, the impulse of Secular Christendom is simply to return fire.  Only true Christianity gives a basis for facing the evil in the world, addressing it with wisdom and force if necessary, and yet remaining determined to love the people who are doing that evil.

Our society does not primarily need more “freedom” (the right) or more “equality” (the left).  It needs more of Christ.