Is Tolerance the Highest Virtue?

Dear Church Family,

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the highest virtue for those who have no others.” He’s quite right. Tolerance ought to be a virtue to which we hold; however, if one is tolerant of all behaviors, affections, and ideas, then he is unable to make judgements and therefore cannot hold to any other virtues. If tolerance is a person’s highest virtue, then giving to the poor is the same as stealing, remaining faithful to one’s spouse is the same as adultery, and justification by faith alone is the same as justification by faith and works. That’s why the Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which we celebrated this year, was so important. (Yes, I recognize the irony of quoting a Roman Catholic to defend the Reformation; still, it applies).

An online seller of audio books (christianaudio.com) has a special deal this month. You can download (free for the month of December) the audio book Why the Reformation Still Matters by Tim Chester and Michael Reeves. I’ve just begun listening to it. So far, I’ve found it to be very interesting, helpful, and accessible. In the course of the eleven chapters of the book, the authors cover such important doctrines as: justification, Scripture, sin, grace, the theology of the cross, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, sacraments, the church, and the every-day life believers.

According to the description found on the website (see link above), the book asks: “What if the Reformation still has something to teach us? What if the doctrines so vigorously debated and defended by the Reformers still matter today?” I, for one, am convinced that these doctrines still matter today, and that it’s essential for bible-believing Christians to know the doctrines of faith as taught in Scripture, as well as the false teachings that have been promulgated throughout church history, and in many instances, still must be dealt with today.

Yet, in some quarters of Christendom, drawing these types of distinctions between truth and falsehood is viewed as unnecessarily divisive. Some even claim that drawing attention to such differences is a direct violation of Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity (John 17:20-21). This is certainly a danger, and I’ve previously written about the necessity of “theological triage.” However, drawing distinctions (or knowing the difference between truth and error) is a necessary precursor to proper discernment.

The Biblical Call to Discernment

Maybe we need to back up first, though. It’s important, I think, that we first recognize that the Bible teaches us that discernment is a necessary component of the Christian life. For one thing, discernment is necessary for the proper ordering of our loves. That is to say, we learn to love the proper things – and grow in that love – only through learning discernment.

For example, the Apostle Paul prays for the Christians in Philippi that their “love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” so that they would be able to approve the things that are excellent (Philippians 1:9-11). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews speaks of the importance of growing in one’s knowledge of Christian doctrines (able to eat solid food and not just milk) by having their “senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:12-6:3).

In addition to the proper ordering of our affections, discernment is also an important component for the spiritual protection of the church. The Apostle John admonishes believers to be watchful for the many deceivers who have gone out into the world who deny the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He even warns that if we do not keep watch, we may be in danger of stunted growth, or even moving backward (2 John 1:7-8). Peter warns for us to be on the look out for false prophets and false teachers who “secretly introduce destructive heresies,” leading many into divine judgment along with them (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Christians are called to be discerning, but in our day, “toleration” is a by-word that characterizes our pluralistic society. To be sure, being tolerant of other people and what they believe is important for living peaceably with other human beings in this world. And, of all people, Christians ought to be examples in loving our neighbors. Yet, as is more and more often the case today, toleration has come to mean the absence of judgment and therefore the opposite of discernment.  Yet, one can be discerning and make judgments while still loving his neighbor.

The Necessity of Making Distinctions

Perhaps it’s obvious, but in light of the biblical call for Christians to be discerning (to distinguish between good and evil, and between truth and falsehood), it is necessary to be able to actually distinguish good from evil and truth from falsehood. This link between discernment and the ability to make distinctions is implicit in the Apostle Paul’s teaching on one of the qualifications for elders in the church. Elders must be men who are “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

Let’s consider this admonition for elders to both exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. When teaching or preaching, sometimes I will draw attention to the different views that are out there concerning certain doctrines. Sometimes, I draw attention to the false beliefs of those outside the church (non-Christians), and other times I draw attention to the false teachings of those inside the church (particular individuals, churches, or denominations).

Whenever I do so, I try very hard to not violate the ninth commandment by bearing false witness and misrepresenting someone’s views. So, I endeavor to directly quote what a person has publicly taught, or reference the official teaching of a particular denomination or church.

Sometimes when I’ve pointed out these differences, however, I have had people ask me why I would do that: “Why are you highlighting the differences between what we believe about baptism and what Baptists or Lutherans believe about baptism?” Or, sometimes I have had people ask if I’m condemning everyone who is a part of that particular church: “You said that the Roman Catholic Church teaches heresy with regard to the doctrine of justification; do you believe that there are no believers in the Roman Catholic Church?”

To be clear, even if the teaching in question is a heresy, I am not necessarily speaking to the state of an individual’s soul. They may teach false doctrine, but actually be inconsistent in their beliefs – I can’t know that. But, what I can deal with is what a particular individual or church says or teaches. And, it’s actually necessary to point out such things and to draw such distinctions between what we and others believe.

Drawing such distinctions is necessary not only because it is part of an elder’s calling (Titus 1:9), but also because it is an essential aspect of learning. Let me give you an example from parenting. Suppose a mother wants to teach her child about animals, but she never makes any distinctions. The child points in a book at a picture of a dog, and the mother says, “It has four legs, a tail, and a head. That’s a dog.” They turn the page and the child points at a picture of a cat, and the mother says, “It has four legs, a tail, and a head. That’s a dog.” The next page shows a giraffe, and the mother says, “It has four legs, a tail, and a head. It’s a dog.”

Or, on a more serious note, my wife and I will sometimes be watching a movie or a television program with our children and help them make distinctions. For instance, we were recently watching a television show in which one of the characters explained his view of Christian baptism. He said, “As I understand it, getting your baby baptized means that he’ll get into heaven.” My wife quickly interjected, “Um…Not true!” We sometimes press pause and discuss the issue, but our catechized children recognized the error right away, so we just kept watching.

We actually do this all the time with our children. We take advantage of “teachable moments” where we try to help them develop theological and moral palates, palates that are able to distinguish truth from error, good from evil, and right from wrong. It’s one of the ways that we seek to love our children: by teaching them to make distinctions, which is a necessary component of discernment.

Conclusion

I once heard a talk from a woman affiliated with “Great Commission Publications” – the publishers of the resources that we use in the Sunday school classes at our church. She was promoting their materials, and one of the things that she said at the beginning of her presentation struck me, and has stuck with me for many years. She said, “We consider it our role and our responsibility to indoctrinate your children.” To some, indoctrination carries negative connotations; however, she went on to explain that she meant it quite literally: to indoctrinate our children by teaching right doctrine in order to get that right doctrine “in” them.

Pastors and elders have a biblical mandate to make distinctions in order to teach sound doctrine and refute false teachings and contradiction (Titus 1:9). And, it’s one of the ways that pastors and elders seek to love those in their care: by teaching them to make distinctions, which is a necessary component of discernment.

If you slowly turn up the heat on the proverbial “frog in a kettle,” it never realizes the danger that the water he’s in will soon boil and kill him because he doesn’t recognize the subtle changes in temperature. In the same way, when I make distinctions, pointing out the false doctrine that is held and taught by others, it’s not because I hate them. Actually, it’s because I love you. I’m desirous to love you as a mother and father loves their own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Book Recommendation: "All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes"

Dear Church Family,

In the Men’s Discipleship Group, we are presently reading and discussing the book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers. As you might expect from the title, Myers raises a warning for Christians as to the deleterious effects of the relatively recent ascendency of popular culture, how our sensibilities and ascetic tastes are often shaped in ways that we don’t even know. This is probably the third or fourth time that I’ve read the book, and each time I do, I’m convicted in new ways. I highly recommend the book. So, herein, is a brief overview of the book, some select quotations from the book, and some particular points that struck me personally. I hope this will encourage you to get and read the book for yourself.

A Definition of ‘Culture’

First, we must begin with a definition of ‘culture.’ I have found that when most people use the word ‘culture,’ they are usually thinking of a concrete entity that is removed from them, like the products of Hollywood and news and television media; however, in one of the best definitions of ‘culture’ that I have ever read, Myers shows that culture is something in which we are immersed, and therefore, it is part of who we are:

What sort of being is a culture? It’s not a person. It’s not even an institution, like the church or the state or the family. It is instead a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors, and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom do not know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food. (Myers 34)

 

A Summary of the Book

The book is eleven chapters long, and is best summarized by the author himself in the concluding chapter (“Where Do We Go from Here?”):

This book has been an effort to explain the nature of popular culture in relation to other aspects of creation, and especially in relation to the history of American culture and society. Escaping the captivity to popular culture’s ethos requires that we know how that ethos differs from other cultural alternatives, and how it has evolved to reflect other ideas in our culture.

We have come a long way in examining that evolution. We looked at how popular culture emerged in the nineteenth century as a substitute for traditional or folk culture, for people uprooted from those cultures by industrialism. We saw how popular culture’s mass-produced, disposable quality established limits to what it could contain, even as they encouraged greater and greater consumption. We saw how, in the twentieth century, popular culture effectively preempted the place of high culture, as the values of high culture, a legacy of Romanticism, became indistinguishable from those of popular culture. We examined the crucial decade of the 1960s, in which the superficial, antirational, and immediate qualities of popular culture were more and more regarded not merely as means of distraction, but as means of intense and liberating knowledge of the universe. (Myers, 181)

 

The Idiom and Medium of Popular Culture

In our present discussions, we are nearing the end of the book in which Myers dedicates one chapter each to popular culture’s idiom (rock ‘n’ roll) and popular culture’s medium (the television) – the book was written in 1989, so we could probably add the internet and streaming video to this latter category. Full disclosure: this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I enjoy rock ‘n’ roll (mostly of the classic rock genre) and I enjoy television (especially movies). Perhaps that’s why I am convicted by this book; Myer’s insights reveal some of the problems with my own predilections.

You see, Myers doesn’t evaluate the content of rock ‘n’ roll and television (the usual tact of much Christian evaluation of popular culture). Rather, his main purpose is to evaluate how a culture such as ours – in which rock ‘n’ roll and television are predominant – shapes our character, affections, virtues, and sensibilities (our ability to appreciate and respond to the goodness of creation).

One of the things that Myers points out is that the idiom and medium of our popular culture often create in us the sort of character that works against Christian maturity (and promote immaturity, Christian or otherwise). They create in us an inappropriate desire and need to be entertained, the valuing of emotional stimulation rather than intellectual reflection, a tendency to use rather than receive art and information, making evaluations according to individual taste rather than by objective standards, and a preference for the image over verbal communication.

All of these things are detrimental to our spiritual lives as individual Christians. And, that is one of the main concerns of the book: to open our eyes to the often subtle and subversive ways that popular culture changes us. And, one of the things that Myers also points out is how the idiom and medium of popular culture also affects the communal life of churches.

With regard to the effects of popular culture’s idiom, Myers writes:

Robert Pattison suggests that rock’s threat to religion is that it forces ‘churches to compete [with rock-dominated culture] on the basis of their ability to titillate the instincts of their worshippers,’ thereby making religious leaders ‘entrepreneurs of emotional stimulation. Once God becomes a commodity for self-gratification, his fortunes depend on the vagaries of the emotional marketplace, and his claim to command allegiance on the basis of omnipotence or omniscience vanish in a blaze of solipsism as his priests and shamans pander to the feeling, not the faith, of their customers.’ (Myers, 154)

 

With regard to the effects of popular culture’s medium, Myers writes:

…Christian obedience requires at least some familiarity with certain abstractions, such as sin, forgiveness, love, holiness, and eternity. Once again, such abstractions can be demonstrated in narrative or dramatic form, but dram is no better than images at communicating the essence of what God has revealed in propositions.

Even if all the entertainment on television was inoffensive to Christian ethics and of the highest artistic merit, its form of communication (and form of knowing) encourages the aversion to abstraction, analysis, and reflection that characterizes our culture at all levels. Thinking is often hard work. Television’s surfeit of instant entertainment not only provides relief from such hard work; it offers an attractive, alternative ‘way of knowing’ (as does rock ‘n’ roll) that makes reasoning seem anachronistic, narrow, and unnecessary. (Myers, 170-171)

 

Conclusion

At the end of the book, Myers speaks to how individuals, parents, and church leaders ought to resist the sensibilities of popular culture by fostering a culture of transcendence, “a dynamic cultural life rooted in permanent things.” (Myers, 183) He doesn’t advocate creating cultural Christian ghettos, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. Rather, he provides a principle for regulating our relationship to popular culture that is marked by awareness and deliberation: “You can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols.” (Myers, 180)

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Introducing Dr. T. David Gordon

Dear Church Family,

I hope everyone has a good Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends as we remember and give thanks to God for all of His many blessings that we enjoy.

Midland Reformed Theological Conference (2018): Dr. T. David Gordon

As we enter into the Thanksgiving weekend, let me take this opportunity to remind you to mark your calendars for our fourth annual Midland Reformed Theological Conference (MRTC) coming up on February 23-24, 2018. Our speaker will be Dr. T. David Gordon, professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, where since 1999 he has taught courses in religion, Greek, humanities, and media ecology. Dr. Gordon will be speaking on media technology and the Christian, how many of the technological advances (especially, digital media) shape and form us in ways that we don’t often recognize. You can learn more about the upcoming conference online here: http://providencemidland.org/mrtc2018.

Online Interview with Dr. Gordon

In preparation and anticipation of the conference, I want to point you to an online interview with Dr. Gordon that was just published today on the weekly podcast of “The Mortification of Spin.” You may listen to the interview, “Is There Hope for Johnny?” online here (the interview is about 35 minutes long). Dr. Gordon speaks about ‘media ecology’ (a new term and field of discipline for most of us), preaching, and singing in worship. I encourage you to go online and listen to this audio recording to get a little taste of the conference in February.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

A Royal Priesthood, Divinely Identified

Dear Church Family,

When I first entered the military, I enlisted in the Army Reserve right out of high school. Immediately following my initial basic training, I began attending “drills” with my Reserve unit, one weekend a month. Simultaneously, while attending college, I enrolled in R.O.T.C. So, for a couple of years, I sort of had a dual identity in the army. One weekend a month, I was Private Dietsch (an enlisted soldier); at college, I was Cadet Dietsch (an officer-in-training).

Now, because I had a little more military experience than most of my fellow cadets, the instructors made me a squad leader with the rank of cadet staff sergeant. The rank means something only among cadets, but to the untrained eye, it sometimes looks like real staff sergeant rank. Well, one weekend, while operating in my cadet role, we were training at Fort Dix, NJ and sharing a dining facility with the basic trainees. That’s when the dual identities that I had been living caused me to have an identity crisis.

As my fellow cadets and I entered the dining facility, one of the privates who was waiting in line there to get his food hollered, “At ease! Make way!” All of the trainees (the privates) and one cadet (myself) slammed our backs against the walls in the position of parade rest in order to give a clear path to whatever sergeant or officer might be coming into the dining facility.  I stood at the position of parade rest, eyes fixed straight ahead, waiting. No one came. Just then, I heard the voice of one of my fellow cadets whisper in my ear, “It’s for you, man.  Let’s go eat.”

Apparently, one of the privates saw my rank – and although he probably didn’t quite recognize it – decided to play it safe and assume I outranked him. Also, I assumed that I was still a private, and not a cadet officer-in-training. I acted according to who I assumed myself to be, rather than who I really was according to the rank that had been bestowed upon me.

Priests to our God

I find that many Christians have a similar identity crisis in their spiritual lives. They act like sinners, rather than the saints whom God has justified. They act like orphans, rather than the adopted sons and daughters of God. They act like outsiders, rather than the holy priests that God has called them to be.

In our continuing sermon series in the book of Exodus, this past Sunday we looked at Exodus 29:1-46, God’s instructions for the ordination and consecration of priests who served in the tabernacle of the old covenant. That may seem extremely distant and far removed from our context as new covenant Christians living in the twenty-first century; however, it actually has a direct correlation to understanding our proper identity as God’s redeemed people.

You see, in the New Testament, the high priests of the old covenant are seen to be foreshadows of Christ (e.g., Hebrews 4:14-16; 9:6-12): Jesus is like the high priests of the old covenant, but He is so much better. When it comes to the general priesthood of the old covenant, however, the New Testament describes them as foreshadows of all of God’s people in the new covenant. Christians are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), a kingdom and priests to our God (Revelation 5:10).

Washed and Anointed to Make Sacrifices

More specifically, we find a direct correlation between the ordination and consecration of the priests of the old covenant and all believers in the new covenant. In their ordination as priests, those who served in the tabernacle were washed and cleansed (Exodus 29:4) and anointed for service (Exodus 29:7) so that they would be able to make daily sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-41). With this idea of how the washing and anointing of the priests prepared them to fulfill their duties of daily sacrifices, consider the Apostle Paul’s description of the new birth in his letter to Titus:

4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared,  5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,  6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

 

The priests of the old covenant were washed and anointed for service; likewise, in verse 5 of this passage, the Word of God describes how God saved us by washing us (“the washing of regeneration”) and anointing us (“renewing by the Holy Spirit”).

But what about the sacrifices? Well, the Lord doesn’t save us in order that we might offer up lambs on an altar to him like the priests in the old covenant did. As the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10), Jesus has paid it all; no more sacrifices for the atonement of our sin is needed. At the same time, the Lord does wash us and anoint us to perform a sacrifice of a different kind: good works.

Consider the next verse in the third chapter of Titus. Having just explained the gracious work of God in saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” Paul reminds Titus to speak confidently concerning these things, “so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds” (Titus 3:8). He says, “Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14).

Conclusion

You hear a lot of people talking today about the concept of “self-identifying” – determining one’s identity according to whatever one desires to be (usually related to gender or sexuality). Well, “self-identifying” is a silly concept as it denies that God has created us and given us an identity apart from our own desires. What’s more, for the Christian, we do not “self-identify” because we have been “divinely-identified” by the Lord Jesus Christ. He has declared and identified us to be a spiritual house for a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), a kingdom and priests to our God (Revelation 5:10).

If He has saved you by the washing of regeneration and the renewing by the Holy Spirit, then that’s who you are. Therefore, be who you are! Don’t stand against the wall, waiting for someone to come along and give you orders. He has already told you what to do. The Lord has washed and anointed you so that you might learn to engage in good deeds, to live out the job-description given to you in the Ten Commandments. If you have been born again, then you are a member of God’s royal priesthood, washed and anointed for holy service to Him.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch