My Primary Citizenship: The Kingdom of God and the American Idea

Today is Independence Day.

Last year I wrote about living in America as a Kingdom citizen. This year, I’m adding a few more thoughts. After the whirlwind of the Presidential Election, I’ve become even more convinced that there is a need to learn and appreciate the American Tradition. But do so while longing for a new and better country.

Prior to July 4th 2016 I found out two important things: I am the descendant of Patriots and Prophets. I discovered that I have relatives on both sides of my family that fought during the Revolutionary War (one being an armed guard for George Washington). They risked their lives to fight for liberty. But I discovered another reality: I have a relative who was a Baptist pastor and church planter. This man was jailed in 1773 for preaching without a license. So American liberty and gospel preaching runs through my veins. For this I am thankful.

Maintaining the Balance

I am convinced that I can live as a citizen of America while also maintaining my primary citizenship in the Kingdom of God. My conscience can acknowledge the tension. It is possible to love your country and choose not to worship it – the former is patriotic and the latter is nationalistic.

As a personal tradition on Independence Day I remember our “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” On this day I remember that liberty from tyranny will be difficult and that freedom will be costly. Later on today I will read the Declaration of Independence (a yearly tradition). But I do this with a healthy tension. While I celebrate the 4th, I do this knowing that as a Christian my primary citizenship is in God’s Kingdom. I firmly believe that Jesus is raised from the dead and is exalted as King of the universe. God has transferred me out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His Son (Col 1:13-14). Though His reign is veiled now, one day Washington D.C. will bow before the New Jerusalem and the Supreme Count will give an account to the True Judge, Jesus. On that final day it won’t matter that my passport identified me as an American citizen because I’ll be part of a multi-national chorus of praise to the Rightful Ruler of the universe. While I sing “My Country, Tis of Thee” now I do so knowing that it doesn’t compare to “This is My Father’s World.”

Making America Great for Everyone

I believe knowing your country’s traditions and history can result in a healthy love for country. I think it is good to have this respect, knowledge, and appreciation. Unfortunately I’m afraid to say that most Americans are ignorant of American history. But in light of this, I think it is important to honestly acknowledge the deep scars of its past and present. Not everything in our past is glorious and beautiful. American patriotism is not blind idealism. As a Christian I weep over the moral tragedies of racism, inequality, and abortion. Social injustice should cause Christians to seek the Lord. Indeed America has its issues and sin. To make America great again is not possible because for many, America was not great in the first place. Natural Rights were neglected and still are today. There is injustice, political corruption, and a broken system that denies basic rights to people. We don’t need to make America great again…we need to make America great for everyone through the gospel. This is the power of the gospel. In the USA I have the freedom to preach the gospel to my neighbor without the fear of government opposition. I have the right, without government infringement, to show compassion to my friends. While living in America now, I can point people to the new and better country – the Kingdom of God. This is the healthy tension of maintaining dual citizenship.

Instead of believing in the dichotomy of citizenship, I believe there are a few ways we as Christians can live as Kingdom citizens while being productive American citizen:

  • Jesus is Lord and rules over every sphere of life (Philippians 2:11)
  • As followers of Jesus we are ultimately citizens in exile awaiting a Better Country (Heb 11:16/1 Peter 1:1-2).
  • We can freely proclaim Jesus to our neighbors with love (Colossians 1:28).
  • Work to support your family and contribute to your community (2 Thess 3:10-12).
  • As followers we should pray for our nation and its leaders as we live quiet and peaceful lives (1 Timothy 2:1-3).
  • As exiles we should seek the welfare of the city in which we live (Jeremiah 29:7).
  • We can vote for leaders who demonstrate upright character (Proverbs 16:12).
  • We can hold our leaders accountable when they demonstrate ungodly character (Proverbs 29:4).
  • As American citizens we should be thankful for our individual freedoms while knowing true freedom is found in Christ (Galatians 5:1).
  • We can pursue peacemaking and not war (Matthew 5:9).
  • Living in a free country we should call the government to maintain its God authorized responsibility (Romans 13:1ff).
  • We can advocate for the God-Given rights of all people regardless of race, sex, or religion (Genesis 1:26-28).
  • As the church we should prophetically call the nation to repent (Jeremiah 18:8).
  • The church should take care of the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17).
  • Our goal is focused on the renewal of all nations, not just America (Psalm 22:27).
  • We should live with the tension that nations, including ours, will rage against God and act beastly toward His people – we shouldn’t be surprised (Psalm 2 & Revelation 13).
  • Remember that the New Creation is multi-national/ethnic (Revelation 5).

I believe Christians must maintain a healthy theology of citizenship. We should celebrate our freedom as American citizens with the hope that one day all the nations will celebrate freedom in Christ. Today I live within a tension: I celebrate American independence while maintaining my true citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

Thoughts on the 2017 SBC Annual Meeting

 

 

This was my second year to attend the SBC annual meeting. Being a younger pastor, it is always a joy to experience this event. The conversations are still new and relationships are fresh. This meeting in particular provided another opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. As I reflect on the meeting, I consider this one to be insightful in many regards.

First, pastors of normative sized churches led the SBC Pastor’s Conference – no “big names” or fancy show just the straight exposition of God’s Word. I appreciate the work of Dave Miller and others who put this meeting together. I was challenged by Bart Barber’s message on unity and peacemaking. While I wasn’t able to attend every sermon, I look forward to catching them online.

Second, once again the International Mission Board Dinner was powerful. David Platt retold the story of Baptist Missionary Adoniram Judson. The point in telling the story was simple: we are here to sacrifice for the cause of Christ. On Tuesday night the IMB commissioned several missionaries going to the field. The reality of the moment sunk in when the lights were darkened to conceal the faces of many missionaries. This was due to security reasons. The commissioning was a powerful reminder of the reason for the SBC.

Third, I was able to reconnect with many friends (pastors, missionaries, etc). Seeing friends like Steve Ellis (missionary to East Asia), Brandon Smith (spokesperson for the CSB Bible), Travis Hester (founder of Kingdom Growers) and many others really encouraged my heart. This is one of the primary reasons to attend the annual meeting, in my opinion. Hearing how God is moving among neighborhoods and nations strengths my desire to make more of an impact!

Fourth, the Anti-Gospel Alt Right resolution was passed. For those who have never heard of the “alt right” this resolution may not mean much. The alt right is a group of radical white nationalists and most of their views (political, religious, social, etc) are explicitly racist. Their actions are anti-gospel at its core and must be condemned. Though there were issues concerning the Resolution Committee failing to consider the implications for not allowing the original resolution to be reported out, I am thankful that the revised resolution was passed. The ground stir among social media, younger pastors, and the messengers was awesome to witness.

Lastly, as I was boarding my flight back to Texas I sat next to a brother from the Philippines who serves with the Nehemiah Teams through the IMB. He shared with me his desire to reach the nations with this wife. Listening to his story challenged me to consider my own calling to contribute to God’s global mission.

These are a few of my thoughts from the convention. I am thankful for the opportunity to attend once again. The good news is that 2018 Annual Meeting will be in Dallas! As they say, everything is bigger in Texas and 2018 is expected to be huge!

A Baptist Family Catechism

From one generation to the next, Christians are called to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ and pass on “the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.” (Jude 1:3). Particularly as Baptists we are living in the continuity of tradition, desiring to embrace the past, and are being shaped by the steady flow of history that is bending towards Jesus. This is important, as the church and culture at large are experiencing a crisis of faith. The question, “What do we believe” must ring in our ears as we seek to live out the gospel in this world. Simply put – we are in need of a theological and biblical revolution.

Throughout Church history one of the primary ways the church has passed down Biblical truth has been the means of a Biblical catechism. A Catechism is a method of teaching that seeks to explore questions and provide answers from Scripture. Within our Baptist tradition there have been a few catechism produced for catechesis (Keach’s Catechism in 1677, Spurgeon’s Catechism on the 1689 Confession, John A. Broadus in 1892). There is a long line of catechetical tradition going back to the Puritans, who used catechisms to teach and instruct their children in the way of the Lord.

The following catechism (see PDF below) follows the first 10 articles of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. It provides a clear explanation of Biblical teaching concerning God, Scripture, and Salvation. The catechism is fairly general as it this allows parents to graciously shepherd their children into the knowledge of the truth. Parents should take the liberty to explain and expound the rich truths of theology to their children. This can be used during family worship following the model of the puritans. There is an answer for older children, following the language of the BFM2000 and then a simplified answer for younger children.

To use the catechism is simple: read the question and answer, followed by the Scripture Proof. Within each article you will notice Echoes from the Past, an Exposition, an Application, and a stanza from a Hymn. The sections are short allowing the family to move through one question at a time or multiple if desired. As a side note, I would encourage parents to listen to the hymns on www.hymnary.org if they are not familiar with the particular hymn selected.

You’ll find that this catechism is a simplified version compared to others, however, it draws from other historical catechisms.

While I strongly believe that we as parents have the Biblical responsibility to instruct our children in the truths of the Christian tradition, particularly related to our Baptist heritage, I also must encourage you to live out an ethical catechesis in the eyes of your children. Not only do they need to hear about Biblical teaching, they also need to see it in action. You – Mom and Dad – are the primary means of a Biblical witness to your children. The responsibility to train your children does not fall to your pastor or their youth pastor, rather God has placed them into your hands. As a result we must take care of them by shepherding their souls and nurturing their hearts in the Truth.

Ethical catechesis is my way of describing “intentional and instructive Christian living.” Your life is a catechetical means of demonstrating the gospel to your children. You live what you truly believe. Thus, we instruct our children by practicing what we preach. Far too often, parents convey the “do as I say and not as I do” mentality to their children – what a shame. As Christian parents we must be intentional in our living to represent the gospel well to those whom God has placed under our care. There might be times when you have to ask forgiveness from your children. Use that moment to discuss the importance of Christ’s forgiveness. There may be a time when you withhold discipline to demonstrate mercy and grace. Making it to church on time reveals the importance of the Lord’s Day. Go out of your way to love your neighbors so your children can understand the corresponding Biblical truth.

Your life should reveal what you believe about God. In the end we aim to shape our children by the Bible, not by our standards. We should parent out of grace, always directing our children to the gospel of Jesus. May we seek to instruct radical disciples for Jesus and not religious Pharisees, who may know all the right answers but fail to live them out. This begins with us. Mom and Dad…you need the gospel just as much as your children. Embrace it, live it, and share it with your children.

A Baptist Family Catechism PDF

 

Redefining Politics: The Center of “Political” Engagement

For many Americans Tuesday, November 8th, was an important day. It signaled a time for making America great again. Millions exercised their right by voting for the next President of the United States. For several months we witnessed political ads, watched political debates, and argued over candidates on social media (at least I did, regrettably). However, for another group of Americans the election was a time of remorse, it signaled a time when the progress stopped. Needless to say that Americans engaged politically on every level.

However, I don’t intend to discuss the political ramifications of being a conservative or liberal. I simply want to remind you that the center of life is not Washington D.C. Even months removed from that Tuesday in November, Americans are still experiencing a political hangover. But let me remind you that the center of political engagement isn’t found at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the steps of the Capitol, the Court Room of Justices, or the halls of Congress. Every 4 years we convince ourselves that it is, especially this past year. I’m sure four years from now we’ll do the same thing. We are creatures of habit. As an American citizen I believe that the election of President is important. However, Washington D.C. was never intended to be the center of our world.

 

Being Political

We should be concerned about “politics.” I mean it was Aristotle who argued that as humans we are political animals. But we need to understand what it means to be “political.” Being engaged in politics is more than just voting for President every 4 years on the second Tuesday of November or campaigning for a candidate. Being political has to do with our daily interactions with others.

The modern word ‘political’ is derived from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis (the city).’ A general understanding of politics is simply the organization of public life. Webster states that one of the definitions of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” Christian philosopher Scott Moore argues, “Politics is about how we order our lives together in the polis, whether that is a city, community, or even family.” Rod Dreher states, “In the most basic philosophical sense, politics is the process by which we agree on how we are going to live together.” (see The Benedict Option).

Being political is much more than labeling yourself a liberal or conservative. At it’s most basic level it is about how individuals relate to each other and live together. In this case nearly every choice we make is “political” as it affects those around us, whether family, friends, or neighbors. In a sense as citizens we engage in politics everyday by the way we interact with each other (or choose not to interact). We don’t simply exist as individuals doing our own individual thing. That is contrary to the very idea of society and to experience. Rather we are individuals who engage in community. This engagement is “political.”

 

Practical Christian Politics

If being political is about relating and living with others, as Christians we must view our “political engagement” through a Christian worldview. The foundation of the Christian tradition – to love God and neighbor – is by application “political.” To love your neighbor is to care about someone other than yourself. Loving your neighbor is focused on the complex of relations between people living in a society. The virtues of daily “political” and social engagement for Christians are found in the Bible. Jesus taught his disciples to “do unto others as you would have them to unto you…love your enemies…give to those who ask.” He also taught His disciples the proper use of money and the value of personal virtue. These statements are found within the context of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ Kingdom Manifesto. Jesus was providing His disciples a way to think “politically” about their engagement in society and with their neighbors.

The people of God are political as we seek to represent a different kingdom by living virtuous lives. God created humanity in community and as such we are political. Being political is simply being the type of people God wants us to be, loving Him and loving others.

This is all driven by the telos, the ultimate goal of the Christian faith – the resurrection of a New Created Order that is to come. That is to say we engage politically with those around us because of the future goal of the world. The present is impacted by the future. The goal motives us to live now. The not yet drives the already.

 

The Center of a Political Engagement

Since political virtue and engagement is not derived from Washington D.C. we must redefine our “politics.” The center of political interaction between neighbors is found within our local context. Contrary to popular American folklore, Washington D.C. does not define our politics. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the Lord of the universe and all of history is bending towards Him, including our daily lives.

As such the center of political engagement is found around the table at the local Dairy Queen and the Garden Club planning meeting. It is revealed in the exchange at the local food bank. The heart of politics is seen on the little league baseball fields as little boys dream of one day playing in the World Series, as their coaches are exhorting them to keep their eye on the ball. The political center of America is experienced in community functions downtown on Market Street. Political engagement is manifested in exchange of ideas and values at the pharmacy. It is experienced as moms have coffee with friends and as husbands come home from work greeted by warm hugs from their three year old. The engagement takes place everywhere, whether that is at the local PTO, school board, or Rotary Club. Political virtue is revealed in rallies as local law enforcement and community leaders discuss racial equality. The core of our politics is found on Sunday mornings as you make the choice to go to church or decide to stay home. This type of political engagement ought to be strived for. It is here that we must redefine what it means to be political.

 

And as Christians this engagement has another meaning – we engage with others as representatives of God’s Kingdom. Through the Spirit’s power, as live and relate with others, we show the alternative political sphere – one that is ruled by Jesus. Local political engagement, moving through the simply rhythms of life – with The Father, Son, and Spirit – has significant eternal effects on those we interact with daily. We are living as exiles in this world, under the reign of the Exalted King.

As we are living within a post-Christian America, the church must realize that our Kingdom politics are completely different than that of the empires of the world. We are duel citizens. Though many Christians in America fear that losing our Christian influence in Washington politics is a horrible thing. However, I believe as Rod Dreher states,

“Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’ soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.”

America is not the New Israel. If we are going to take the Biblical Christian Story seriously, we must face the fact that we are living in Babylon. We are longing for a new and better country. And as exiles awaiting the overthrow of the Beast, we engage with others with Kingdom of God politics – loving our God and neighbor. This is what is means to engage politically.

Resurrecting the Hymn

 

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through Music. – Martin Luther

I love to preach and teach God’s Word. I believe those who attend GCC enjoy learning the Truth of the Bible. But something else we enjoy is singing. Historically the church of Jesus Christ has declared the Truth of God through song. The Psalmist proclaims, Sing to the LORD, praise His name; proclaim His salvation from day to day.” (Ps 96:2). Singing is one of God’s proscribed ways of worshipping Him.

During the past few decades the Evangelical Church in the West has been in a war of worship. The Worship War has been the focus of many church splits and debates. The question comes down to will a church be contemporary or traditional. A contemporary church is usually defined as a church that sings modern worship songs while a traditional church typically sings hymns. This is an issue that has lead many churches to have multiple services to appeal to both contexts. It is argued that the traditional services are geared towards the older generations while the contemporary is focused on the younger.

Personally I listen to all types of music styles. I enjoy listening to Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, and others. However at GCC we sing traditional hymns out of hymnals. We don’t object to contemporary music or think it is of Satan (God forbid!). Rather within our context, we believe it is prudent to sing songs that have been handed down from generation to generation. We are living in the continuity of tradition, desiring to embrace the past, awakening our Baptist heritage, and being shaped by the steady flow of history that is bending towards Jesus.  I attended a church in the past where a hymn was sung occasionally. I was greatly disappointed. Unfortunately hymns get snubbed, as “the younger generation won’t attend a church that sings songs they don’t know.” Let me argue why I believe hymns are important in the life of the church:

Hymns Are Simple  

That’s the beauty of hymns; they are simple and easy to learn. They can be sung without music. They can be brought to life with a new arrangement. They can be recited in a hospital room. If the younger generation won’t come because they don’t know the songs, maybe we have the wrong evangelism method. It might be the case that we need to introduce the younger generation to the simplicity of the hymn. Once again I am not against particular style. Trust me, I enjoy good music. But if the style overrides the message, than I have an issue. While a guitar or drum solo in a worship song may sound good, I personally do not believe it is necessary. The simplicity of the hymn allows the worshipper to hear clearly the message contained.

Hymns Transcend Generations

The fact that we still sing hymns from centuries ago is a testimony of the sustaining power of the hymn. From each generation to the next, we pass these hymns down. Some stretch back to the Medieval period, through the Reformation, and to the present day. Just this past week one of our younger students in church was practicing “Amazing Grace”, a hymn published in 1779. It is a beautiful thing to behold when generations sing songs that pre-date them by decades and centuries. I believe the hymn is something to be conserved within the church and passed on to younger generations. Hymns have a way of moving us out of the “now” and into a long line of faithful saints.

Hymns Abound in Rich Theology

This is not to say that modern worship songs don’t – just listen to Tomlin, Mullins, or Sovereign Grace Music. The theology pours out of their songs. In the same way, the hymn contains bold and rich theology. Take for example Isaac Watts (my favorite hymn writer). His theology points us up to experience the glory of our God. William Cowper’s hymns provide a similar affect. Charles Wesley wrote powerful words. We sing hymns as a way to testify to the greatness of our God. I simply don’t understand why many churches have rejected these beautiful and bold theological statements. I assume it is the same reason many churches have rejected old creeds and confessions (they are old and dusty). This is not to say that ALL hymns contain sound words (there are a lot of unbiblical hymns). However, most conservative hymnals place theologically sound hymns in them.

Hymns Shape Our Minds and Affections

Since hymns are easy to learn through simplicity, they have the power to shape our minds. In a sense they are a means of catechesis. They teach us to think and feel Biblically. Since hymns are theologically, they direct us to reflect upon the truths in a profoundly simple way.

Hymns are Stories 

This is one of the major reasons I love hymns. Hymns are stories. Most modern worship songs are broken down into a typical format (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro). But a hymn is typically arranged differently with a series of forward moving lines with a simple refrain (if the hymn even has this). These forward moving lines convey a story.

Take for example Amazing Grace by John Newton. Newton’s original lyrics contain a series of six stanzas:

Starting at conversion, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believed!”

Moving to the present experience of, “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…”

Leading to a hope in God’s Word, “The Lord has promis’d good to me, His word my hope secures…”

And finally concluding with eschatology, “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail…The earth shall soon dissolve like snow…Will be forever mine.” 

Hymns have a narrative movement. They tell a story that is to be embraced and lived in.

 

Common Objections

Objection 1: “Your church won’t grow if you sing hymns.”

My objection is clear: if music is the means of church growth, then we have an unbiblical method of evangelism. Nowhere do we see in Scripture that music style is a means of evangelism or church growth. At that point we have entered into pragmatism. But to be very honest, you’d be surprised by how many of the “younger generation” doesn’t actually care about the style of music. Thom Rainer states,

You will hear Millennials speak less and less about worship style. Their focus is on theologically rich music, authenticity, and quality that reflects adequate preparation in time and prayer. But they will walk away from congregations that are still fighting about style of music, hymnals or screen projections, or choirs or praise teams. Those are not essential issues to Millennials, and they don’t desire to waste their time hearing Christians fight about such matters.

Changing the style of music might bring in younger folks. But the reality is if the church is being the church (Biblical preaching, community outreach, loving one another) than the style won’t matter much.

Objection 2: “The younger generation doesn’t understand the hymns so why use them in worship.”

I get it – the whole “thee and thou” thing trips the younger folks up. But honestly, you really think that the younger generation is that ignorant? Why not use the hymns as a means of catechesis (something else we don’t do by the way)? Unlocking the “Old Hymns” brings to light the “Old Truths” of an “Old Book.” For centuries family worship was built on a Bible and a Hymnal.

Objection 3: “Hymns aren’t exciting! They are boring!”

I can understand the objection. When I was younger I remember singing the hymn “Revive Us Again” at the speed of a snail. Yes, indeed, it was boring. But again I think the objection has to do more with style than content. I think this refers back to the idea that hymns are simple. Thus simple equals boring. The idea is that you can’t “get excited” if you are singing Victory in Jesus. The desire to “feel” a certain way is understandable. Songs are intended to reach the affections. But believing that hymns can’t reach the affections is simply ignorant. We are not moved just by style of music but by the simple truth of the song. Truth reaches our affections.

Objection 4: “The hymns are for old people!”

Yes…and your point?

 

The Resurrection of the Hymn

I am personally praying for the resurrection of the hymn. I might be naïve or old fashioned (I’ll claim both) but I believe that the sustainability of old hymns is evidence of the powerful truths they contain. Hymns reach the affections, they stir the mind, and move the will. This article is not a rejection of modern contemporary music. On the other hand it is a declaration to embrace the songs of the past, songs that Christians before us sang as worship to God. Songs like “And Can it Be”

He left His Father’s throne above,

So free, so infinite His grace;

Emptied Himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race;

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;

For, O my God, it found out me. – Charles Wesley

And truths like,

When I survey the wondrous cross

on which the Prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss,

and pour contempt on all my pride. – Isaac Watts

Lyrical theology is a beautiful thing!