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That Crazy Little Thing Called Church: A Review of Sojourners and Strangers

sojourners and strangersThere is no shortage of books on the market about the church. The shelves are lined with books about preaching, worship, social justice, leadership, and, of course, being missional. Every one of them focused on one or more tasks of the church.

But Gregg Allison argues that the conversation is missing something very important. Before we spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, maybe we should reflect more on what the church is. And that’s precisely what he sets out to do in Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012), an outstanding contribution to Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series. If you’re looking for a good resource for understanding the nature of the church and its role in the world, this is one to check out.


Allison begins by identifying himself and his church background, well aware that these necessarily shape how he understands ecclesiology. And since Allison teaches theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that his approach to ecclesiology is largely conservative (though his take on spiritual gifts and multisite churches might surprise some), Baptist, and what many would call “low church” (congregational and less sacramental). This necessarily shapes the way that Allison presents his view of the church and makes it exceptionally useful for understanding a Baptist ecclesiology. At the same time, though, Allison’s largely charitable summaries of other perspectives allows the book to be useful for a broader audience as well.

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Philosophy Is More Fun with Pictures

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I happen to think they’re wrong, but I still think good illustrations are valuable for understanding difficult concepts. And philosophy is full of those.

So here are a couple of resources I ran across recently for learning (or teaching) philosophy. The first is the beautifully drawn An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. You can read the whole book online, but here are a couple of examples.

Confusing Correlation with Causation

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How Important Is the Doctrine of the Church?

How do you decide how important a theological issue is? Does the mode of baptism warrant as much attention as the incarnation? Few would say so. But how do we know?

doctrine of the church ecclesiology people of god

That’s the question Gregg Allison addresses at the beginning of his excellent book Strangers and Sojourners: The Doctrine of the Churchwhich I’ll be reviewing in full sometime soon. And although he argues that the doctrine of the church may not rate up there with things like the incarnation and the atonement, he still thinks it qualifies as a central theological issue. (Of course, since he just wrote an almost 500-page book on the subject, that really shouldn’t surprise us too much.)

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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Really Bad Gift

I have received some awful presents over the years. That’s particularly frustrating since I’m a very easy person to buy gifts for. It’s quite simple: just get me books. If you don’t know which ones, ask. If you don’t want to ask, grab a gift card. If a gift card is too complicated, slip some money in a napkin with “Book” written on it. It can even be a used napkin, I don’t care.

But no, people want to get creative. They try to come up with something unique and inspiring. So instead of a good book, I end up with another gadget or gizmo, along with an opportunity to practice my admittedly rusty etiquette, smiling awkwardly and trying not to let on that I really just want to go back to my office and finish reading the book I bought myself for my birthday.

Unless you’re my daughter and your gift is some amazing thing you made out of clay with your very own hands, skip the creativity and buy me a book.

So yes, I’ve gotten some frustrating gifts over the years. But I never expected one of them to come from God.

theology of sleep

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Is the Incarnation a Contradiction?

thinker (300x320)Expressed simply, the incarnation looks like a pretty straightforward contradiction. After all, traditional theology claims that the following set of propositions are all true.

  • God is immutable (unchanging).
  • Humans are mutable (changing).
  • Jesus is both God and human.

Er? How can it make any sense to say that Jesus is both immutable and mutable at the same time? Isn’t that a little like saying that I’m in Illinois and Washington at the same time? I may have put on a few pounds over the years, but I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t gotten that bad yet.

Looking at “logic” like this, many draw the conclusion that the incarnation, one of the central beliefs of the Christian faith, is more than just paradoxical; it’s absurd, a contradiction, a logical impossibility. It’s like believing in square circles, straight curves, or a good VMA awards show.

It’s no wonder that people think Christians are idiots.

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Can God Love You If He Doesn’t Need You?

barbed heart (550x366)

Did you know that it’s possible to destroy a relationship with just four simple words? Some longer sentence swill do the trick as well: “I’d like to have twenty-three children,” “I once dated my brother,” and “I like the new Star Wars movies better,” would all do the trick for me. But one simple sentence should suffice to kill any meaningful relationship:

I don’t need you.

Can you image what it would be like for me to find out that my wife doesn’t need me? Devastating. I certainly need her: not in the sense that I’m one of those needy, clingy people that everyone tries to avoid. (People certainly avoid me, just not for that.) I need her in the sense that she’s a part of me, I rely on her, without her, I’d be less.

If I found out she didn’t need me, I’d question our whole relationship. Can she truly love me if she doesn’t need me in any way? Wouldn’t that make me like some random person she passes on the street, someone who contributes nothing to her life? If she doesn’t need me, can she truly love me?

I think most of us would say no. Real love, deep love, lasting love, requires reciprocity. Both people need, both people risk. Otherwise, one of you isn’t in the game.

But here’s the problem: God doesn’t need us.  Continue Reading…

The Atheist/Agnostic Grid

Here’s a helpful and creative chart that explains the distinction between atheism, agnosticism, and theism. I found the “agnostic theist” category particularly interesting. I run into this one a lot, but didn’t have a category for it until now.

atheist-agnostic grid

Thanks to Pablo Stanley for putting this together. (HT)


The Church Is Not a Democracy

democracy democratic vote congregational church congregationalist congregationalism church covernanceIn this quote, Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth warns against viewing the church as a democracy, which he sees as a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the church. His concern wasn’t with congregationalism or the idea of churches voting on major decision (Forsyth himself pastored a congregational church), but with the fact that understanding the church as a democracy makes us think of the church as being all about the people (democracy literally means “rule of the people”), whereas we must always remember that the church belongs to God and owes him, and him only, absolute obedience. Essentially, he fears that the democratic impulse stems from a desire to shirk that responsibility and be our own highest authority.

Although I have a hard time believing that congregational churches are the only ones who tend to forget that God is the one in control, having attended a congregational church all my life, I think this is a warning that we all need to hear. As much as I value congregational participation in church governance, it can, and often does, contribute to an atmosphere that is people-centered (everyone needs to have their say and we must keep everyone happy) rather than God-centered, a democracy rather than a church.

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The Pernicious Heresy of an Unconcerned God

There are few heresies so pernicious as that of a God who faces nothingness (sin) more or less unaffected and unconcerned, and the parallel doctrine of man as one who must engage in independent conflict against it. We know well enough what it means to be alien and adverse to grace and therefore without it. A graceless God would be a null and evil God, and a self-sufficient, self-reliant creaturely subject a null and evil creature. If a doctrine of nothingness (sin) is not unyielding on this point, nothingness (sin) itself will triumph.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3, p. 360

3 Mistakes We Make When Talking about the Sovereignty of God

The following is a conversation that recently took place in my daughter’s middle school group. And I think it does a good job highlighting three mistakes that we often make when we talk about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to sin and suffering in the world.

suffering pain sovereignty of God depression

Youth pastor: God is sovereign. That means he controls everything that happens.

Middle-schooler: So God was in control when my dog died? Why would God kill my dog?

Youth pastor: That’s a tough one. But sometimes God lets us go through hard times so that we’re prepared for even more difficult things in the future. I remember how hard it was when my dog died. But going through that helped me deal with an even more difficult time later when my grandma died. Does that make sense?

Middle-schooler: (Long pause.) So God killed my dog to prepare me for when he’s going to kill my grandma?

Youth pastor: (Silence.)

Ah, youth ministry. There’s nothing like a question from a 12-year old to make you realize that what you just said doesn’t make as much sense as you thought it did when you said it.

Like I said, if you look closely at this quick exchange, I think you’ll see three mistakes that people commonly make when talking about the sovereignty of God and how it relates to the bad things that happen in the world.

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