Bishops must Rebuke Emperors

In the Year of our Lord 390, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I exacted retribution on the citizens of Thessalonica for an uprising. The Church Father Theodoret recounts what happened:

The emperor was fired with anger when he heard the news, and unable to endure the rush of his passion, did not even check its onset by the curb of reason, but allowed his rage to be the minister of his vengeance. When the imperial passion had received its authority, as though itself an independent prince, it broke the bonds and yoke of reason, unsheathed swords of injustice right and left without distinction, and slew innocent and guilty together. No trial preceded the sentence. No condemnation was passed on the perpetrators of the crimes. Multitudes were mowed down like ears of grain in harvest-tide. It is said that seven thousand perished.

St. Ambrose of Milan heard of the massacre and forbid the Emperor from entering the Church. The entire account can be found in Theodoret, but in part he says:

Fired with divine zeal the holy Ambrosius exclaimed “Rufinus, I tell you beforehand; I shall prevent him from crossing the sacred threshold. If he is for changing his sovereign power into that of a tyrant I too will gladly submit to a violent death.” On this Rufinus sent a messenger to inform the emperor in what mind the archbishop was, and exhorted him to remain within the palace. Theodosius had already reached the middle of the forum when he received the message. “I will go,” said he, “and accept the disgrace I deserve.” He advanced to the sacred precincts but did not enter the holy building. The archbishop was seated in the house of salutation and there the emperor approached him and besought that his bonds might be loosed.

“Your coming” said Ambrose “is the coming of a tyrant. You are raging against God; you are trampling on his laws.” “No,” said Theodosius, “I do not attack laws laid down, I do not seek wrongfully to cross the sacred threshold; but I ask you to loose my bond, to take into account the mercy of our common Lord, and not to shut against me a door which our master has opened for all them that repent.” The archbishop replied “What repentance have you shown since your tremendous crime? You have inflicted wounds right hard to heal; what salve have you applied?”“Yours” said the emperor “is the duty alike of pointing out and of mixing the salve. It is for me to receive what is given me.” Then said the divine Ambrosius “You let your passion minister justice, your passion not your reason gives judgment. Put forth therefore an edict which shall make the sentence of your passion null and void; let the sentences which have been published inflicting death or confiscation be suspended for thirty days awaiting the judgment of reason. When the days shall have elapsed let them that wrote the sentences exhibit their orders, and then, and not till then, when passion has calmed down, reason acting as sole judge shall examine the sentences and will see whether they be right or wrong. If it find them wrong it will cancel the deeds; if they be righteous it will confirm them, and the interval of time will inflict no wrong on them that have been rightly condemned.”

In a letter to the Emperor, St. Ambrose says:

Should I keep silence? But then my conscience would be bound, my utterance taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all. And where would be that text? If the priest speak not to him that erreth, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring.

Ambrose believed that it is the duty of a priest to correct all those in error, up to and including the Emperor of Rome, lest the priest become responsible for not speaking the truth to him. He is referring to Ezekiel 3.18:

If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.

This is the testimony and example of the ancient Church handed down to us as a pattern of how to deal with tyrants who massacre their own people.

Churches Data Mining for Net Worth?

I have heard that some churches now employ data mining software on their websites to determine parishioners net worth and presumably attempt to get more money from them. Perhaps it works something like this:

Whether a patient comes in for a gall bladder operation or to have a baby, the routine remains the same for staff at Sharp HealthCare hospitals in San Diego. The front desk checks insurance records to make sure the bills get paid on time. Nurses take vitals and tag their charges with a bar-coded wristband that helps them avoid treatment snafus. And behind the scenes, the fund-raising staff runs scans on the assets of each patient. The goal? To find out whether they re megarich, wealthy or merely comfortable.

While the folks checking in don t know it, the nonprofit hospital chain is hunting for prospective donors. Armed with powerful data-mining software, they screen hundreds of admissions records each morning to find a handful of wealthy patients who ve shown prior interest in the hospital. Those who make the cut may enjoy a bedside visit from a patient relations director who offers concierge services. Extra pillow? Free parking passes for visiting friends? The director will make it happen. It s all about building a relationship at the point of service, says foundation CEO Bill Littlejohn, and it has proven to be effective: We ve gotten many letters and gifts from people who said, It was so nice you stopped by.

When your favorite nonprofit isn t busy saving the whales, chances are it s making a serious behind-the-scenes effort to know you better and using increasingly sophisticated technology to do so. Whether it s the local museum or an international relief group, a charity s prospect-research staff can survey your salary history, scan your LinkedIn connections or even use satellite images to eyeball the size of your swimming pool. And if it s really on the ball, it s keeping better tabs on your financial life than you are. Should your stock holdings double, your friendly fund-raiser can get an e-mail alert prompting her to make an impromptu call.

See the rest here.

Predictive analytics the science of identifying and cultivating new donors by analyzing characteristics of existing donors has become indispensable to many nonprofits. It helps them determine who will send a $100 check at Christmas and who might give $50 million for the new memorial wing. The patterns that emerge can be surprising. Lawrence Henze, managing director of Target Analytics, a Blackbaud firm, learned that liberal arts majors are more likely than business grads to remember their alma mater in their will. And when nonprofits add commercial data to the mix, even finer patterns emerge. Don Austin, analytics director at infoGroup Nonprofit, says folks who donate to food banks are more likely to live in an apartment, carry credit card debt and play the stock market.

Will churches treat these prospective targets better than the average parishioner? Hospitals do:

Aggressive fund-raising has become standard procedure at hospitals, clinics and even hospices, as medical institutions try to make up for higher costs and dwindling insurance reimbursements. No one tracks the statistics, but the practice of screening admission records to find rich patients is pretty common, says Kathy Renzetti, spokesperson for the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy. And once the hospital determines you re a VIP, the perks roll in. At Penn, there are 1,200 donors and volunteers who get bumped to the front of the line for appointments with specialists and get special assistance with billing mix-ups. At San Diego s Sharp HealthCare, major donors receive a card printed with staffers pager numbers, to ensure they receive top service around the clock.

Here’s an example of this software: DonorScope. How on earth can this be squared with the Scripture?

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
(James 2:1-7 ESV)

The Cult of Personality Leadership Model is Broken

By now, you would think that Christians would start to wake up to the fact that the cult of personality model of Church is broken. Mega church, micro denomination, best-selling books, people emulating your hairstyle and inflections, everything being about how gifted the visionary leader is – this is a recipe for disaster. Don’t believe it? See:

1. Mark Driscoll and Acts 29.

2. C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries.

3. Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel.

4. Chuck Murphy and the AMiA.

If there is a common denominator with these leaders and their problems, it is a lack of accountability. God help anyone who is in their shoes, powerful, charismatic and not beholden to anyone but themselves. It is a recipe for disaster. The Church must wake up and reject this model of the great leader.

We Must Obey God

Chaplains have a calling that I’m not sure is tenable in the long run. The State, in the form of the Army, silenced Catholic chaplains last week, see here.

The Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains subsequently sent an email to senior chaplains advising them that the Archbishop’s letter was not coordinated with that office and asked that it not be read from the pulpit.  The Chief’s office directed that the letter was to be mentioned in the Mass announcements and distributed in printed form in the back of the chapel.

Increasingly, the Church is being called to a public witness that will result in consequences. Will Christians stand up, or go silent?

Douglas Jones on Ecumenism

From here.

Rationalism assumes that goodness flows from getting our ideas in order, but that seems to get the biblical reality reversed. Intellectual agreement seems to be a symptom of doing goodness and beauty. If each communion led first with doing the good and the beautiful instead of just thinking about it (my tradition), then the intellectual ecumenism would seem to flow much more easily. Intellectual agreement assumes a context of trust and good will. It would seem more profitable for each communion to expend its efforts in the short term (meaning over the next two centuries) showing the ugliness of modernity, individualism, egalitarianism, unitarianism by contrast with our mature, healthy Christian communities (“Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” [Deut. 4:6]). If we were all better at provoking the non-Christian world to jealousy for Triune goodness and beauty, then we would have much less problem using the sort of model proposed to unite more intellectually. But we don’t want to assume a thin rationalism to fight Rationalism. That’s playing by their rules.

It’s All Ours

Jaroslav Pelikan writes about the common “plunder the Egyptians” attitude of the church fathers:

The attitude of the church fathers toward classical thought contained a somewhat analogous judgment of its historic role. “Whatever things were rightly said among all men,” wrote Justin, “are the property of us Christians.” Christianity laid claim to all that was good and noble in the tradition of classical thought, for this had been inspired by the seminal Logos, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. This meant that not only Moses but Socrates had been both fulfilled and superseded by the coming of Jesus.

I’d add that as Classical Protestants, this can be our attitude towards the riches we can find in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writings. Not all of their thoughts are dross, after all, and the careful reader can harvest both good and bad from them, or any other baptized Christian.

Reforming the Easter Celebration

Although Easter is the pinnacle of the Church Year, it has never quite seemed that way to me and I think that the way it is celebrated is part of the reason why. Growing up, Christmas certainly outshone Easter as a time of excitement and wonder. Presents of course had much to do with that, as well as the impressions associated with a typical Easter. I think John Updike captures some of it in his story, Short Easter:

But, generally, the festivity that should attend the day had fallen rather flat: quarrelsome and embarrassed family church attendances, with nobody quite comfortable in pristine Easter clothes; melancholy egg hunts in some muddy back yard, the smallest child confused and victimized; headachy brunches where the champagne punch tasted sour and conversation lagged.

I associate Easter with uncomfortable clothes, the colors purple, pink, mauve and yellow, the house being too warm due to ham cooking, having to sit down to an excessively formal dinner of ham, and getting the feeling of quasi-nausea that comes from eating far too much sugar in one day. Sugary mints, sugary Peeps, sugary everything. The weather is too hot for your new suit and pollen is everywhere. The preacher trying too hard to make the old story new. Things of that nature are what come to mind.

In contrast, it seems like Easter should be a military celebration, a Roman Triumph, a victory parade. Torches burning, bands blaring, pigs roasting on a spit. The God-Man has destroyed our last enemy, death, and has utterly triumphed over every foe. I don’t know quite what is should look like, but I do like what Rober Louis Wilken wrote in First Things:

If Christ is culture, let the sidewalks be lit with fire on Easter Eve, let traffic stop for a column of Christians waving palm branches on a spring morning, let streets be blocked off as the faithful gather for a Corpus Christi procession. Then will others know that there is another city in their midst, another commonwealth, one that has its face, like the face of angels, turned toward the face of God.

As one small token towards this end, I have started grilling steak on Easter rather than cooking a ham. I am open to ribs and other meats as well. I wish I could conceive of an outright feast, a party of some sort, and maybe I will get there someday, but for now, this small rebellion against Easter orthodoxy is all I can manage. If we could re-enchant Easter, we might be able to truly surpass the Christmas spirit in the Spring with a grand holiday feast.

Small Groups as Part of the Good Life

Isolation kills. Spiritually, we are meant to live in community. One way to do this is through small groups, by whatever name they are called. There are many reasons to conduct and participate in small groups, but one I have not seen is to me central, and that is the definition of the good life given by Aristotle:

“happiness,” or the good life, which is to be attained in a community of family and friends who can satisfy one another’s material and social needs, behave justly toward one another, and, according to their capacity, contemplate the Good.

There are many nights when I don’t feel like going to small group. I’d rather stay home, avoid the drive and rest. But this definition springs to mind and helps me to focus on a primary reason for going. Contemplating “the good” – in our case, the Triune God – is done in some measure by being with other Christians and reflecting on God’s Word together. It’s a simple concept, but it has been held to be central to human happiness throughout Western history, and I believe that vision holds true today.


Sovereign Grace’s Evolving Polity

For some time, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) has had “Apostles.” Now however, things have changed and the apostolic team is now the much more mundane “regional leadership team.” This post has the details. It seems like most movements that begin with a charismatic, non-institutional flux end up with a tight structure and with their own institutions. The move away from using the term apostle is a move in the right direction. Now, why aren’t they honest enough to drop the “family of churches” for the dreaded “denomination”?

Looking at the situation a bit further, notice that SGM has four men on their overarching “Leadership Team”, see here. This team is above the regional leadership team and its eight men. It’s funny as someone who believes in the episcopacy to watch these groups bump around until they find something roughly equivalent to episcopal ministry. C.J. and the Leadership Team are Archbishops, while the regional leadership team are bishops of their regions.

I find the very existence of the group alongside the seemingly similar-in-belief Acts 29 and the Grace Network to be a bit puzzling. Is there no degree of catholicity possible, even amongst churches with identical beliefs? Do atmospherics count for that much? Does John 17 figure at all in our theology these days?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:11 ESV)