Christians and Critical Judgements

Most Christians are happy to accept the authority of expert opinion. What is instructive to note is which domains of knowledge they are comfortable to refer to experts, as opposed to those in which they actively oppose expert opinion. To paraphrase what I wrote to one commenter, Christians are happy to listen to experts when they are biologists or geologists, and the topic is creationism/evolution. Christians are happy to turn to experts when they are neurologists and the topic is depression and the use of anti-depressants. The expert opinion that these men will bring, when submitting their findings to the principles of Scripture, is deemed helpful – and rightly so. For some reason, when the topic is the more critical judgements of art, the experts are disparagingly called “gatekeepers” or “elitists” or said to be “keeping out the unwashed, and allowing in the pure.”

Why is this so? I have no way of proving this, but I suspect many Christians have embraced the ‘double-storey’ view of truth. Immanuel Kant is really the central culprit here. He taught that human knowledge comes in two separate layers, or floors. The lower floor we might call “scientific” or rational knowledge. It’s the kind of knowledge we can work out using mathematics or measure with scientific experiments. The upper floor we might call “moral” or intuitive knowledge, and it refers to religious beliefs, morals, and judgements about beauty. Kant believed that only the lower-storey could be known with certainty, through empirical observation. The upper-storey was “impossible to know, but morally necessary to suppose”. What that translates to in the contemporary situation is the idea that science delivers hard facts, while art delivers neutral material which obtains only “personal” judgements, variable from subject to subject.

Christians seem to believe this. They believe we need experts to fight infection in the body, build aeroplanes, and program software – because this kind of knowledge is, to them at least, entirely “objective”. But determining if a song is sensual, if a poem’s rhythm is comical, if a film is subversive to Christian affections is no longer a matter of collecting empirical facts, and must then be “subjective”, a term which in their parlance usually means “arbitrary in meaning”. Of course, if this is so, an expert in these areas is not only an impossible vocation (for how can one person’s judgement be authoritative if no authoritative, universal judgement is possible), such a person becomes preposterous – like having a colour-inspector tell you if your interior decoration is lawful or not.

But Kant’s dichotomy is open to challenge, and few strict Kantians exist anymore. What Christians need to embrace is the truth that while judgements about music and art are indeed of a different kind to those of maths and science, they are all still judgements. All knowledge is a matter of judgement and interpretation, even the manipulation of numbers, or the direct observation of the universe. It is all performed by subjects, and in that sense, all knowledge is ‘subjective’. The difference between a judgement of art and one of science is not that one is exterior and the other interior, or the one discoverable and the other mystically unknowable. The real difference is that aesthetic, moral, religious knowledge is knowledge that pertains to persons, and so the judgement requires a more careful, critical judgement.

Ethical and aesthetical judgements are difficult. It’s easier to work out the circumference of a circle than it is to determine how Christians smuggling Bibles into a country should deal with the border agents. Such an ethical judgement is hard, but not impossible. It calls for the combined thinking of many Christians on the topics of truthfulness, governmental authority, civil disobedience, conflicting obligations and questions of greater goods and lesser evils. It’s a critical judgement.

Judging art and beauty requires a similarly critical judgement. Such judgement requires a thoughtful examination of form, and of the materials used in the art form. It requires knowledge of the symbols and metaphors within a culture. It usually requires historical knowledge, understanding the “conversation” that has taken place within the culture, so that it can place the work within that conversation. The critic, if he is doing is job, is not “forcing his preference” on us, nor is he “criticising” the work, in the sense of tearing it down. He is explaining meaning to us, using his knowledge of the form, his knowledge of history, and his own sense of perception. He should not tell us what we could not, with the right tools, see ourselves; that is, he is not some kind of mediator interpreting a language that no one else can understand. Nevertheless, he ought to possess a superior knowledge of art, and enough experience and insight to help us see more, and become better judges ourselves.

Certainly we live in an era when we lack a living tradition, and we feel more cut off from meaning in art than most generations before us probably ever did. In this atmosphere, we need critics more than ever, while suspecting rightly that the wrong critics have more power to mislead than ever. The solution is not to retreat to Kantian notions of the impossibility of knowing beauty. The solution is to choose critics immersed in the Western and Christian tradition. Unless we believe moral, religious, and aesthetic judgements are all arbitrary, it is entirely permissible and indeed, necessary, to turn to authorities in these areas, to help shape our judgements.

Authority, Soul Competence and Vocation

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer are two sides of one doctrine that Baptists cherish. Indeed, they make up part of the matrix known as the Baptist distinctives. Soul competence teaches that individual Spirit-indwelt believers can read and understand Scripture for themselves, using the means He has given. The priesthood of the believer means that every individual believer in Christ can approach God directly through the High Priestly work of Christ. Whether we are dealing with the Word or prayer, a New Testament believer is not dependent on human intermediaries between himself and God. The work of salvation is so thorough a work that if a Christian makes right use of the Spirit’s appointed means, he lacks nothing to worship God directly.

Unfortunately, these doctrines are easily misunderstood, or misapplied. When populism is part of the cultural air we breathe, such misunderstandings become almost inevitable. The most infantile of these misunderstandings is the person who opts for ‘home-church’, or Internet-church, or some other excuse to be anti-ecclesiological, and reject authority. Here the person dismisses the need for corporate worship, instruction by pastors, service to the body, or shared life in Christ, all in the name of the believer’s priesthood. Such abuses of the doctrine are easily spotted and easily refuted.

A more subtle form of this misunderstanding is the believer who thinks that if God has granted direct access to His presence, and an ability to understand Scripture, then anything worth knowing is within the immediate intellectual grasp of every believer. The logic is arguing from the apparently greater to the apparently lesser: if knowing the greatest thing – the Gospel – is open to even a little child, then there cannot be lesser things worth knowing which are harder to understand. Emerging from this attitude will be the populist suspicion of philosophy, of theology, of disciplines of thought, of advanced studies, of intellectuals and of academia in general.

The mistake the populist imports into his theological method is to assume that there is a proportional relationship between clarity and importance: the more important something is, the clearer it must be, and the less important, the more difficult it may be to understand. Were we to consistently embrace this view, we would have to conclude that the doctrines of the Trinity, hypostatic union, and election are of minor importance due to their difficulty. In reality, crucial doctrine is often enough not simple or even perspicuous.

The correct approach is to recognise that nearly everything worth knowing has multiple levels of deepening complexity and sophistication. A five-year-old can grasp substitution in the Gospel, and simultaneously doctors in theology may give themselves to decades of studying its meaning. These levels of complexity apply whether we are speaking of biblical doctrines, mathematics, the natural sciences, history, music, the arts, or any area of knowledge in God’s created order. This naturally invites the question, “But how much of this complexity do we need to know?”

God has so made the world and limited man that we each need to specialise in some domain of human life. We need some to give themselves to knowing the human physiology, so as to become experts in medicine and healing. We need some to give themselves to the physics of motion, so as to become engineers. We need some to give themselves to understanding the market, so as to become experts in economics. And we need some to give themselves to the study of music, painting, poetry, literature and architecture, so as to become experts in the arts. No one can master all the realms of knowledge in the short lifespan appointed to us. It is one of God’s mercies to the world: forcing interdependence, trade, and learning.

This is the doctrine of vocation. God calls and equips humans to function well in some area of human life, to bring order and meaning to some section of the created order (1 Cor 7:20-21). Not only so, but God invests His world with meanings, laws, ‘secrets’, which become the duty of man to learn, master and teach others (Prov 25:2).

The answer to the question, “how much of this complexity do we need to know?” is answered by the doctrine of vocation. If you are a doctor, you need to be an expert on health, since that is your calling. If you are not a doctor, you need to know enough about health to stay reasonably healthy, and you need to know when to consult a medical expert. We don’t sneer at doctors and call them elitists; we are thankful that when our basic competence in health and medicine can take us no further, there are experts to do just that. The same is true for engineering, financial planning, software development. And buckle your seatbelt – the same is true for theology, music, poetry and literature.

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer does not remove the need for pastors, nor for professional theologians. Similarly, the fact that every individual Christian can lift his or her voice in sincere praise does not remove the need for art critics, composers or poets.

In the end, I have never met a consistent populist. I have never met the man who was willing to do surgery on himself, act as a lawyer for every one of his contractual agreements, and write his own software. He is usually selectively populist: sneering at theologians, composers, critics, pastors, but happy to accept expert opinion in other areas of his life. If he would accept the doctrine of vocation, he could reconcile the priesthood of the believer and soul competence with the authority of expert opinion, even in matters that touch the soul. He would see, in a word, that no one can know it all. It is an act of humility to accept your own limitations, and learn from those called to be authorities in some domain of human knowledge.

You Elitist, You

Since this series has dealt with “mangled” words such as tolerance, freedom, and authority, I was tempted to include elitism among them. Elitism, though, is really a misused word inseparable from the word authority. When the meaning of authority is mangled, be sure that a sorely maimed and deformed version of the meaning of elitism will make a showing.

This word makes its appearance in some Christian circles whenever a discussion of art, taste, or critical judgement comes up. That is, elitism does not rear its head when the discussion is over a simple prescription or prohibition from Scripture. There, Christians are happy to ping-pong proof texts at one another. Should the conversation require some extra-biblical information from experts, say from a musical composer, or a professor of literature, or a cultural critic, suddenly many Christians get uncomfortable, and feel the elitist camel is poking its nose into the tent. They might not think of it this way, but they are really struggling with the idea of authority, in two ways.

First, they feel that an appeal to any information outside of Scripture is a subversion of the authority of Scripture. They wish Scripture and Scripture alone to settle every debate. While this desire is commendable, it is neither the meaning of sola Scriptura, nor is it the meaning of the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture is the final authority. What God says has the final say, and overrules all other opinions. But sola Scriptura does not mean no other authorities exist in the world. The world is full of authorities on politics, medicine, history, nutrition, economics, art, the natural sciences and so on. Sola Scriptura simply means that none of these authorities claims equal authority with Scripture. Once these authorities have spoken, their views must be submitted to the final bar of God’s Word. Scripture gets to overrule any and all of them. That is not the same as saying we may safely ignore these authorities and depend on Scripture to answer every question. That attitude is not sola Scriptura, it is what is known as nuda Scriptura – naked texts expected to function apart from any other knowledge of the world around us.
The Bible was never meant to deal with every branch of human knowledge, or speak expertly on every topic. It provides commands and principles that cover all that we need for life and godliness. This is its sufficiency. But these principles, in order to find application in our lives, most often require that we gather knowledge from the created order and submit it to the God-breathed timeless principles of God’s Word. For example, to obey Romans 13:1-4, I need to learn the laws of the land, and Scripture doesn’t give those to me. To avoid enslavement to something (1 Cor 6:12), I need to find out what substances or activities are addictive, and Scripture does not identify these for me. Scripture is sufficient to thoroughly equip us, but no one expects Scripture to tell us which foods are healthy, which fashions are immodest, which technologies are edifying. Most of our knowledge will come from outside the Bible. All of our extra-biblical knowledge must submit to the grid of Scripture to be properly understood, and any knowledge that Scripture explicitly contradicts is false. But Scripture is sufficient not in the sense that it exists to be the sum total of necessary knowledge for life. It is sufficient in that its prescriptions, principles and wisdom, when used to judge and evaluate all other gathered knowledge, gives us all we need to live a life glorifying to God.

Second, even among those Christians who are willing to accept expert extra-biblical opinion when it comes to medicine, economics, or science, there exists a deep suspicion of any expert opinion regarding music, poetry, literature or the arts. Supposedly this is simply too arcane, too subjective, and perhaps even too mystical for any opinion to be held as more authoritative than another. And should one quote or refer to those whose vocation is to understand the fine arts, i.e. critics, it won’t be long before the word elitism is thrown in.

Elitism, properly defined, is rule or influence by an elite. Elite, in turn, refers to a class of people superior to others in rank, ability or power. In a democratic age, the idea that elites exist is both acknowledged and resented. Perhaps it is most strongly resented in the evangelical church, which since at least the 19th century, has become strongly populist.

Populism assumes that all that is true and good and necessary to life can be understood equally by all and accessed or perceived immediately, without specialised training or instruction. To a populist, what God wants us to know is what is absolutely necessary to know, and what is absolutely necessary to know must therefore be uncomplicated, immediately accessible, and transparently practical. Recourse is made to texts about receiving the kingdom as a little child, and this is supposed to end the discussion. Consequently, populism views higher learning with suspicion. Populism views consulting experts with suspicion. Populism views advanced studies with suspicion. Populism views tradition with suspicion. Populism views authority with suspicion. Populism views intellectuals with suspicion. The upshot is a roll-your-own-at-home Christianity, where sincerity and an open Bible will supply all we need.

There are two responses to populism. One is to rightly understand the priesthood of the believer alongside the doctrine of vocation. The second is to understand the role of critical judgements. We’ll consider these next.

Identifying Authorities

Within the avalanche of information coming at us, how do we identify true authorities in any domain of knowledge? How do we judge the anonymous Youtube channel, the self-proclaimed discernment ministry, the mega-church pastor, or the well-known author? We need something more than merely an intuitive feeling that a person ‘makes sense’, or ‘seems to know what he’s talking about’. All false teachers do, or they wouldn’t gain a following. Nor can we trust that we have some remarkable internal common-sense. Everyone thinks of himself as a pretty shrewd fellow, while the Bible unflatteringly calls the lot of us sheep. What follows are some suggested methods to wade through the morass.

1) In the case of living teachers of Christian virtue, does the person you trust exemplify the kind of life you are to follow? Is he an example of true Christian piety (Hebrews 13:7)?

2) Does the person you trust himself submit to a tradition? In the case of the Bible teacher, he must be able to defend his position using Scripture, sound reason, and a proven theological method. Something similar holds for a teacher in any other domain, be it science, history, economics, or human behaviour. Can you evaluate his teaching against anything in the past? Does he seem to translate and pass on what has been tried and tested in the past, or is he boasting in his novelty and creativity? The saying is mostly valid: what’s entirely new is seldom entirely true, and what’s entirely true is seldom entirely new. 

3) Does the person you trust exemplify right thinking? Does he display good reason, sound judgement, unprejudiced evaluations and fair-minded attitudes? This third qualification carries the catch-22 of ‘it takes one to know one’, so we need to discipline ourselves in the canons of right thought, to be able to see it in another.

That is, when we choose to trust a person as some kind of expert in a particular domain of knowledge, we ought not to do so simply because the person seems to have such knowledge in great quantity. There is little skill in accumulating vast amounts of knowledge, and only marginally more in impressing others with the size of that knowledge. What counts when it comes to the pursuit of truth is of a person demonstrates the ability to think. Right thinking is not vast recall, or enormous powers of regurgitation. Right thinking has to do with how knowledge is assimilated, analysed and judged. People are led astray because they are mesmerised by the sound ‘n fury of a lot of facts and figures. “If someone can remember that much, he must be clever enough for me to trust.”
Mortimer Adler wrote a very important and useful book for the development of right thinking, called How to Read a Book. What follows is an abridged summary of his guidelines for the right assimilation of information, followed by the correct understanding of its meaning and of its significance.

* Come to terms with an author by understanding what the important words are in his work, and what he means by them.

* Having done so, discover the key propositions, premises and conclusions contained in the work.

* From these, understand the author’s argument. Observe if his argument is deductive or inductive. Observe what he assumed. Observe what he says can be proved, what need not be proved and what is self-evident.

* Consider what his solutions are.

* At this point, the work of criticising the contents of the book takes over. Critical judgement will say I agree, I disagree, or I suspend judgement with good reasons for doing so. Critical judgement can only be done when you can state the author’s argument in terms he would agree with.
To judge critically is to acknowledge your emotion, make your assumptions explicit and attempt impartiality. The disagreement will not be mere opinion; it will give reasons for the disagreement without being contentious.

* There are three ways of disagreeing with an author rationally, stated as responses to the author:
1. “You are uninformed” – the author lacks relevant knowledge.
2. “You are misinformed” – the author makes assertions contrary to the facts.
3. “You are illogical” – the author reasons poorly or fallaciously.
A fourth way exists, which is really a way of suspending judgement. It is to say “Your analysis is incomplete,” which is to say that the author has not solved all the problems, or did not see the ramifications and implications of his ideas, or failed to make relevant distinctions, or failed to make as good a use of materials as possible.

Once we have begun to grasp and practise these ways of handling knowledge, we are better off in two ways. First, we are able to better handle the knowledge coming at us from every side. If a book, or website or video fails the tests of right thinking, and does so again and again, there is no reason to trust its analysis or to place much stock in it. Second, we are better able to evaluate the teachers of knowledge themselves. A person who consistently commits fatal errors of logic, whose sources are erroneous, or who mishandles his materials disqualifies himself from our consideration as some kind of expert. No matter what the domain of knowledge, we want to hear from people who think properly when they handle that knowledge.

It might seem that we are a long way from plain biblical discernment when we speak of right thinking. But that is because we have imbibed a form of thinking which divorces the God-glorifying task of good thinking from the God-glorifying task of biblical interpretation. If we think well, we are better able to spot teachers who handle the text of Scripture properly. If we think well, we will consult the right people on various areas of human knowledge., and distinguish the authorities from the posers.

Who Made You the Authority?

The explosion of information on the web has made the idea of authoritative information almost a thing of the past. A CGI-Enhanced Youtube video about the non-existence of the South Pole is as accessible as the online Encyclopedia Brittanica’s information on Antarctica. The crowd-edited Wikipedia is found as easily (or more so) than a peer-reviewed journal. The Internet has not only granted full democracy to all ideas, it has tended to flatten out all judgement, and scrap a sense of hierarchy of trustworthiness. No longer do canons of received knowledge exist in hard-bound Oxford or Cambridge Press volumes. No longer do scholars carry the weight of authority they once did in the popular mind. If a video has garnered three million views, it may just be true.

The democracy of ideas is simultaneously the pooling of ignorance. As Doug Wilson quipped, “We have not yet realized that the computers may simply be moving our ignorance around the planet at incredible rates of speed. As one wag put it, ‘We used to think that a million monkeys typing away at a million keyboards could produce the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not the case.'”

For many, this democracy is seen as a good thing. After all, canonised error is harder to overturn than the slander and hear-say of the gossip-rags. Further, doesn’t the whistle-blowing potential of the web keep people honest? Any man with a phone can now publish to a worldwide audience, and all strongholds of secrets are vulnerable. Ideas which would previously have been actively suppressed, or dismissed by the large publishing houses, can now see the light of day.

Benefits exist, to be sure. Hide-bound ideologies like Darwinism or liberal progressivism meet their match on the web. Like-minded people meet, though separated by oceans. False teachers and false teaching can be called out as soon as they record. Every idea is exposed to challenge through this technology.

On balance though, one wonders if the negatives outweigh the positives. It is the very cacophony of ideas, and the absence of some filter to discard and retain ideas, that tends to destroy any real sense of judgement in most people. People either grant authority to people and ideas that they ought not, or they become intensely cynical about anyone being an authority. Overwhelmed with ideas and competing authorities, the average person simply sets himself up as the authority, deciding eclectically what he deems plausible.

For example, witness the obsession with fake news. Is fake news alternative media? Is it news that does not support the agenda of the Broadcasting Magnates? Is it the news the Broadcasting Magnates disseminate? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? Or consider conspiracy theories. In the world of the Truthers, a conspiracy theory is true precisely because most people think it isn’t. It is considered factual because They deny it. Every denial, or evidence to the contrary, finds an explanation that supports the Conspiracy Theory narrative.

What this amounts to is a crisis of authority. Who can be trusted? When criteria of judging knowledge to be authoritative have disappeared, when human authorities no longer exist, there is no good reason not to take seriously Youtube discussions of the existence of mermaids, accounts of teleportation to Mars, or evidence of time travellers in old photographs.

But discerning who is an authority is exactly where things begin to fall down. We find ourselves in a kind of catch-22: authorities will give us the right kind of knowledge, but we need the right kind of knowledge to spot the genuine authorities from the self-appointed posers. Experts help us to discern the issues, but we first need to discern who the experts are.On what basis should I trust a professor’s word over Wikipedia’s? On what basis should I listen to one pastor and not another? On what basis should I trust one book over another?

This is where the value of tradition comes in. Whether it is an intellectual, cultural or religious tradition, it reflects the process of elimination and assimilation that people do over centuries. Human beings were not meant to do on an individual level in a moment what is meant to happen on the scale of entire cultures over hundreds of years: evaluate meaning, recognise authorities, and deliver a consensus. Of course we must each make judgements, and trust certain voices, but we were meant to do so with the backing of tradition. Within a culture, judgements are passed on from one generation to another. People who have spoken well on an issue are pointed to, and younger consciences are formed as they are exposed to these judgements. People growing up within the bounds of a tradition had the safety of hundreds of years of judgements from which to learn. If your father’s father’s father said it was good, useful, dangerous, healthy, true, or false, there was good reason to listen. When we don’t know, we must trust our betters. In a tradition, we knew who our betters were.

Certainly, tradition can be a great evil, if it hands down false religion, poor judgements or liars held up as paragons of virtue. But most cultures have experienced some common grace, and therefore some truth. Few traditions are completely useless. Cultures most exposed to the special grace of the gospel usually have (or had) more evidences of helpful judgements handed down.

What we face now is every man adrift on a sea of opinion, cut loose from the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, cut loose from the Christian worship tradition, with gales of opinions battering each pathetic raft that each person is on. We are back to the book of Judges. Within this storm, we nevertheless have to (and do) choose whom we will trust. Whether the person is living or dead, we should consider three suggestions for evaluating his or her trustworthiness, and therefore, his or her authority. We’ll consider these next.

Authority and Authoritarianism

When authority is usually discussed, about three sentences later, the word authoritarian will make its entrance. In fact, for some, authority is authoritarian – there is no other kind. Recovering the mangled word authority from all the thought-debris that has been hurled at it requires distinguishing it from authoritarianism. I’m not sure whether dictionaries help or hurt the cause of clarification, but for what it’s worth, Webster’s has authoritarian as “of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority” and “of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people”. For ‘English language learners’, Webster’s defines authoritarian as “expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws”, which, unfortunately, implicates every parent, schoolteacher, policeman, and pastor on the planet as authoritarian.

The slipperiness of these definitions becomes downright frictionless once it gets into popular usage. There, authoritarian can mean anything from dogmatism to bullying, from having a visible leadership structure to insisting upon ‘blind submission’ to unaccountable authority. And as we know, when something can mean almost anything, it means almost nothing.

If we have a biblical idea of authority, authoritarian has to represent some kind of deviation from that idea. As we have seen, authority is good, and authority is grounded in Someone who did not derive His authority from anyone outside of Himself. God is  a “concentration of power not constitutionally responsible to the people”, but this is hardly a bad thing. For that matter, sometimes God requires submission without giving us lengthy explanations of the purpose or rationale behind our obedience. If that constitutes ‘blind submission’, then there’s a good deal of it in biblical religion.

Clearly, we need another way of distinguishing authoritarian from biblical authority. Perhaps authoritarian could be rightly defined as “human authority which asserts itself as an end in itself”. Genuinely authoritarian leadership would be the kind that is more conscious of its position than of the direction it wishes to point others to, more aware of its status than its function. Authoritarian leadership mistakes the means (authority) for the end – which ought to be the glory of God and the good of our neighbour.

Having said that, judging when authority has become authoritarian requires a prudent and sober judgement. It is not necessarily authoritarian to

  • assert authority to accomplish God-glorifying goals
  • have explicit authority structures and teach the importance of submission
  • require submission and enforce it against the will of another (e.g. child discipline or church discipline)
  • defend one’s authority against rebellion or divisive people (e.g. the book of 2 Corinthians).

Every Christian parent, pastor, manager or governor has to do every one of those four at some point. Almost always, the accusation of authoritarianism will follow. But the humble leader must accept those calumnies as part of leading in a fallen world. He may be tempted to abdicate his role or back away when such accusations come, fearing that the appearance of authoritarianism is enough to mar his blamelessness. But this would actually be honouring his own reputation above the glory of God. It would be to cede ground to those who hate authority itself, not merely authoritarianism.

He may also be tempted to respond to such attacks or rebellion by furiously defending his role as leader, and resorting to strong-arm tactics, intimidation, power-plays, or manipulation. Such fleshly behaviour turns what was a false accusation into a true one. It plays into the hands of the scoffers who begin with lies, and wait to see if they will materialise into truths.

He must accept that even the humblest leaders will be accused of self-promotion. “They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'” (Num. 16:3)

A faithful leader’s goal is to lead people to where God wants them, using God’s methods, and seeking to display God’s character. He need not defend himself against every fool, but he should explain authority and submission to those who have ears to hear. When God’s church is in danger, he should defend the office of authority, even if it appears he is defending his own name. He should stay the course, outlast the rebels, disciple the teachable, and let the implacable implode on their own.

It is the easiest shot to make: when authority acts like authority, accuse it of being authoritarian. But those under God’s authority see through this.

Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the LORD understand all. (Prov. 28:5)

Pastors – Become Literate in Christian Culture

When the topic of music and worship comes up, a favourite slap-down argument against thoughtful discrimination of music is that pastors need not study music to be faithful pastors.

It is beside the point to say that pastors need not become art critics. If their vocation is that of shepherding the flock, it is manifestly true that they are not called to a full-time practice of judging the merits of art. The real point is that pastors are leaders of Christians, and they are to lead Christians not only in theological thought, but in the practice of worship. It is impossible to worship without art (for we must at minimum use music and poetry – Colossians 3:16), so a pastor who knows nothing about art and wishes to provide leadership in worship is equivalent to the pastor who wishes to lead through the pulpit but neglects to learn a modicum of theology. However sincere he may be, however homiletically gifted he may be, a theological bumpkin will confuse and mislead in the pulpit. He must master (or become competent in) the canons of theological thought if he is to bring lucid biblical ideas to believers.

Not every pastor will have been trained musically, poetically or otherwise. This is a disadvantage, but not a crippling flaw. To lead he must grow in judgement, not in technical proficiency. Judgement of art may be enhanced when the critic is himself a musician, poet, or writer, for he understands better the materials used, and the skill required. But judgement and artistic ability are not Siamese twins, by any means. Many musicians are abysmal critics, poor judges, and have appalling taste. Indeed, in some cases, they are the worst critics, because their technical ability blinds them to their poor taste. Some critics cannot play or sing, but can make valid and insightful judgements. This is because art is experienced before it is understood technically or judged critically. Every man is capable of experiencing art, and reflecting on his experience – though technical and critical judgement should make us more reflective about our experience.

How should a pastor become a better judge of the art to be used in worship? I would not discourage the man from seeking to learn about music or poetry from composers, such as Bernstein, Copland, or Meyer, or by reading the judgements of men like Scruton. As a pastor myself, I have a suspicion that he will be hard-pressed to fit these books into his reading list, which itself is forever being postponed by ministry necessities.

What I would recommend is that the man expose himself to historic Christian culture. Let him read the poetry and hymns of his people in his devotions. Let him him hear their music in his office, in his car, and in his living room. Let him surround himself with Christian voices worshipping, until he begins to hear in them voices in union. The longer he spends with historic Christian verse and music, the more he will imbibe its sentiments, its affections, its very posture before God.

While he does this, he should compare what he is hearing from the church triumphant, with what is written and produced by the professed church militant. If he is doing this thoughtfully, he will begin to notice some very different Christians resemble each other in their worship, while some very similar Christians (theologically) differ widely in their worship. Though separated by centuries, theological chasms, and even language, he will easily find parity between Bernard, Rossetti, Herbert, Watts, Wesley, Montgomery, Milton, Donne, Faber, and Tersteegen. Likewise with Palestrina, Bach, Mendelssohn, or Górecki. Should he live with these men and women, he will listen to 21st century verse or music with a different ear. When judging music or poetry from our era, he will not be looking for something nostalgic, but for something equivalent in our day. He will not be looking for what merely seems accessible or familiar, but for something that echoes historic Christian sentiment.

Becoming culturally literate in your own culture should be a small ask, particularly for those men charged with reproducing Christian culture on a micro-scale in their local churches. Sadly, too many pastors have embraced a view of culture and a view of Scripture that disputes the very existence of Christian culture, and grants a kind of autonomous power to propositional statements from Scripture. For these men, the only question is what music or poetry can be culled from contemporary pop culture that seem (to their judgement) to support the propositional statements of Scripture. And having no comparison for their judgement, the decision comes down, ironically, to how the pastor ‘feels’ about these bits of pop – hardly a propositionally-based judgement.

If I have not persuaded you, at least listen to the Narnian:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books….The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. (On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis)

Authority – Its Origin

The English words authority and author come from the same Latin root, auctor – an originator. Strange how far we’ve come from older ideas, where the concept of authority was connected with authoring, creating, and making. Today, authorities are guilty until proven innocent of being destroyers.

English etymology aside, Scripture, in its first chapter,  makes the case for authority being creative. There the God who brought order from chaos delegates a similar sub-creational role to Adam and Eve, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) The Author calls on His image-bearers to author with Him. He authorises them to exercise dominion over creation, subjugating it. Adam and Eve are to expand the Garden to encompass the Earth. They need authority to do so, and have just received that delegated authority from God Himself. As Paul would say, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Rom. 13:1)

Authority, then, is a gift from God. Order is superior to disorder, and God, the self-existent Authority delegates authority to man. Rightly used, it spreads the glory of God with loving subjugation. From the smallest acts of a humble vocation, to the stately acts of princes and presidents, humans shaping creation are authorities. Further, humans will not only order fields and streams, they are to order human life – which means exercising authority over one another. By creating Adam and Eve separately rather than simultaneously, God was symbolising an authority structure for the home. So far, nothing is fallen or cursed in any of these concepts.

The problem began in Genesis 3. There Adam and Eve sought a new kind of authority. They were pleased to be King and Queen over the Earth, but Satan suggested they be independent kings and queens, rulers in their own right, determining what was good and evil for themselves. The act of eating the fruit, as mundane and simple as it was, represented a high-handed break from God’s authority, a full-fledged declaration of independence from God, a revolt against the Author.

Every abuse of authority begins there. Every tyrannical king or president, every abusive husband, every cruel parent, every manipulative manager, every bullying pastor – and indeed, every act of rebellion to God-given authority – is a ripple from the Tree. God’s authority causes humans to flourish. All forms of its distortion, in small or great ways, bring some kind of death.

Authority is good, and it is permanent. Authority is no necessary evil, nor is it a temporary arrangement. God will always rule, and He will always mediate that rule. The imperfections and evils of authority will pass away with sin, sorrow, and death, but authority will endure forever.

Ten Mangled Words – “Authority” (1)

The popular consciousness has knee-jerk reflexes when it comes to authority. Play the word-association game with the average person, show him the flash-card “Authority” and ask him to blurt out the first word that comes to mind. I’ll wager that if you repeat the experiment across thousands of subjects, you’ll have a top-ten list pretty soon, and it’ll sound something like ‘domineering’; ‘exploitation’; ‘dictatorship’; ‘corrupt’; ‘power-grab’; ‘oppression’; ”bullying’; ‘force’; ‘abuse’; ‘self-serving’.

Of course, were you to do the same test with someone deeply saturated with Scripture and a Scriptural understanding of authority, the words would look completely different, perhaps something like: ‘order’; ‘safety’; ‘restraint’; ‘grace’; ‘delegation’; ‘service’; ‘honour’; ‘mediatorial’; ‘protection’; ‘roles’.

Unfortunately, the average church-goer has a fairly chronic (if not acute) case of secular culture-sickness. His cultural mentors have predominantly been movies, talk-show hosts, Facebook memes, and a few friends with similar influences. When this is shaping your cultural vocabulary, authority means something close to “the necessary evil of having someone in charge, who is usually a self-serving loser and needs to be watched extra carefully”. Mix this in with some phrases he has heard (“the consent of the governed”; “one man, one vote” “a government of the people, by the people, for the people”) and what results is the idea that authority is really the permission that those following give to their leaders. From this mangled idea, churches are frequently accused of authoritarianism, “brain-washing”, or spiritual abuse. Sometimes the charges are true; in some cases, even flawless leadership will be tarred with the same brush. Answering several questions may help us recover a biblical idea of authority.

First, what is authority? Where does it originate, and how does it propagate?

Second, what is authority’s purpose? If we understand its purpose, we will understand its lawful use, and conversely, easily recognise its abuse.

Third, how do we identify an authority, not only in church, but in wider society? Is there such a thing as expert opinion?

Fourth, what does lawful authority look like in that community of self-denying servants, the Church? Democracy? Populism? How do churches incarnate and extend God’s authority?

Judging Areas of Freedom (5)

Modern Christians are in the habit of labelling all sorts of things as ‘matters of Christian liberty’ or ‘areas of preference’. We do not doubt that these adiaphora (“indifferent things”) exist; Scripture explicitly deals with them in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. The question is, how do we identify them?

Genuine adiaphora can be identified by a process of elimination. Anything explicitly commanded or prohibited is clearly not an area of liberty. Further, anything forbidden or commanded by a more general principle cannot be an area of liberty either. If we can supply good and clear warrant for connecting a Scriptural principle to a practice, we no longer have an area where Christians may have opposite convictions and both be pleasing to Christ.

After this process of elimination, what will remain are those matters where multiple principles, of equal weight, seem to apply, some of which seem to point in opposite directions. In these cases, no Scriptural principle will clearly take precedence over another. Further, the information we obtain from the world to understand this practice may have meaning on various levels. Here is where careful judgement must take over. Among the questions we will ask are:

1) How is this thing typically used? What activities, actions and ends is it used for?
2) Does it make provision for the flesh (Ro 13:14)? Are you fleeing from sin and lust by doing this? (2 Tim 2:22)?
3) Does it open an area of temptation or possible accusation which Satan could exploit (Eph 4:27)? Are you taking the way of escape from temptation by doing this (1 Cor 10:13)?
4) Is there a chance of enslavement, or addiction (1 Cor 6:12)?
5) Does it spiritually numb you, and feed the flesh or worldliness within (Ro 6:12-13)?
6) Does it edify you (1 Cor 10:23)?
7) With what is this thing or activity associated? Does it have the appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)? Does it adorn the Gospel (Tis 2:10)?
8) Could an unbeliever or another believer easily misunderstand your action? Does it lend itself to misunderstandings (Ro 14:16)?
9) Could your action embolden a Christian with unsettled convictions to fall back into sin (1 Cor 8:7-13)?
10) Could your action cause an unbeliever confusion over the Gospel or Christian living (1 Cor 10:27-28)?

If two Christians seeking to please God could answer the above questions honestly and yet differently, we have a genuine area of liberty.

But notice, we have not here been agnostic of meaning. Instead, since the area is neither explicitly commanded or prohibited, we have been especially scrupulous with meaning. The example which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8-10 shows us that the focus for adiaphora is not the preference of the person, but the meaning of the situation. Paul teaches that the solution for adiaphora is a careful judgement of meaning. These are not areas of freedom to do whatever appeals to you. These are areas in which all Christians have the freedom to judge carefully, and then obey that judgement (I Cor 10:25, Rom 14:20, 22-23).

Having been careful with our inner judgement, we are then to be charitable with others who have followed the same process and come to different conclusions. In particular, Romans 14 calls on believers to neither despise or judge one another when we come to opposite conclusions. Further, the strong are to bear with the weak, Paul instructs. Who then are the weak?

The weaker brother is not always the ‘stricter’ brother. By this logic, every move towards permissiveness would be a move toward maturity. To abstain from some practices hardly makes one weak in conscience. Someone strong in faith may have a particularly ‘strict’ conviction, relative to another believer.
The weaker brother is not the more easily offended brother. This brother is simply the crabbier brother. He is a brother who takes personal offence where he should not, and needs to be discipled in the virtues of forbearance and patience.

The weaker brother is the brother whose conscience has not settled, who is prone to falling back into a pattern of sin. He is tossed to and fro in his understanding of the adiaphora. He may find refuge in extreme denials and abstinences, but he will just as quickly fall back into foolish indulgence. His weakness is not his abstinence, nor his thin skin. His weakness is his lack of stability in judgement, and the volatility of his conscience. This brother, whose conscience is wobbly and unstable, is to be carefully guided by those Christians whose consciences have settled. They are to limit themselves, sometimes denying their own freedoms, to protect the believer from unwise or foolish choices while he cements his convictions.