A question for pastors, treasurers, financial secretaries, etc.: Why does your church have a savings account?

My opinion of church business meetings vacillates somewhere between complete disinterest and abject abhorrence. When I was younger and knew everything, I wondered why the church I went to had so much money in accounts doing nothing but gaining interest. (It should be noted that, according to Jesus at least, this is only the next to the worst thing that can be done with money- Matt. 25; Luke 19). Now that I am older and know considerably less, I often wonder the same thing. Why do we have so much money in “savings” accounts? A man much wiser put forth the question far more eloquently than I can:

…it was far better to preserve souls than gold for the Lord. For He Who sent the apostles without gold also brought together the churches without gold. The Church has gold, not to store up, but to lay out, and to spend on those who need. What necessity is there to guard what is of no good? Do we not know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord? Is it not much better that the priests should melt it down for the sustenance of the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord Himself say: Why didst thou suffer so many needy to die of hunger? Surely thou hadst gold? Thou shouldst have given them sustenance. Why are so many captives brought on the slave market, and why are so many unredeemed left to be slain by the enemy? It had been better to preserve living vessels than gold ones.

Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.28.137

Why do we have savings accounts when there are souls that need to be saved? I am not sure the Lord is going to be too impressed with our rainy day funds on the Day of His appearing.

The Virginia Tech Shootings and Aurora Colorado

(The following is something I wrote for the church I was attending when the 2007 Virgina Tech shootings occurred. There are several important points of contact with the recent tragedy in Aurora Colorado.)

Like many of you, I spent a portion of Monday night watching news coverage of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. My attention was arrested by a particular comment from one of the anchormen. As he interviewed two students who witnessed the carnage he commented that the shooter seemed to act “methodically, like in the movies like you see people reload in the movies and on television.” To which, one student replied, “Yeah he was… he looked to be trained in how fast he loaded the gun.”[1] My thoughts immediately turned to statements of the church fathers concerning theater. For centuries, a primary argument made against the theater was that it taught people how to commit sin. What could motivate a person to savagely slay 32 souls? Could television and the movies really be the source of his training? Consider the following testimony:

 …on what ground is it right to hear what we must not speak? For all licentiousness of speech, nay, every idle word, is condemned by God. Why, in the same way, is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears—when eyes and ears are the immediate attendants on the spirit—and that can never be pure whose servants-in-waiting are impure?…What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome to in word.[2]

Each generation is reminded by what it hears, that whatever has once been done may be done again. Crimes never die out by the lapse of ages; wickedness is never abolished by process of time; impiety is never buried in oblivion. Things which have now ceased to be actual deeds of vice become examples. In the mimes, moreover, by the teaching of infamies, the spectator is attracted either to reconsider what he may have done in secret, or to hear what he may do. Adultery is learnt while it is seen…[3]

I am ashamed to tell what things are said; I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the tricks of arguments, the cheatings of adulterers, the immodesties of women, the scurrile jokes, the sordid parasites, even the toga’d fathers of families themselves, sometimes stupid, sometimes obscene, but in all cases dull, in all cases immodest…People flock thither to the public disgrace of the brothel for the teaching of obscenity, that nothing less may be done in secret than what is learnt in public; and in the midst of the laws themselves is taught everything that the laws forbid. What does a faithful Christian do among these things, since he may not even think upon wickedness? Why does he find pleasure in the representations of lust, so as among them to lay aside his modesty and become more daring in crimes? He is learning to do, while he is becoming accustomed to see. [4]

Why should I speak of the actors of mimes, who hold forth instruction in corrupting influences, who teach adulteries while they feign them, and by pretended actions train to those which are true? What can young men or virgins do, when they see that these things are practiced without shame, and willingly beheld by all? They are plainly admonished of what they can do, and are inflamed with lust, which is especially excited by seeing… And they approve of these things, while they laugh at them, and with vices clinging to them, they return more corrupted to their apartments… [5]

The suggestion almost seems too fantastic. Who would be naive enough to believe that TV or movies would cause a person to kill 32 people and then take his own life? For centuries, the church made such an assertion, and its accuracy is once again demonstrated. On Wednesday, New York Times reporter Mike Nizza, in commenting on the materials the killer mailed to NBC, wrote, “The inspiration for perhaps the most inexplicable image in the set that Cho Seung-Hui mailed to NBC news on Monday may be a movie from South Korea that won the Gran Prix prize at Cannes Film Festival in 2004.”[6] The next day, SKY news reported on the same material, “In the chilling video Cho also appears to re-enact scenes from a film detectives say he had repeatedly watched in the days leading up to the massacre.”[7] So where did this young man receive his training? Not in the military. Not a secret jihadi war camp. He learned it in his room…sitting in front of his television.

For centuries, wise leaders of the church railed against all forms of the dramatic arts as inherently sinful. The world continues to demonstrate the fruit of witnessing, learning, and nurturing unrestrained passions. The sinfulness of the world is not the problem, however. If judgment indeed begins in the house of God, the problem is with us.

Consider your weekly TV and movie viewing habits. What blasphemy, what deceit have you been taught? What murder, what adultery have you learned? What judgment, what condemnation have you earned? What grace, what mercy have you spurned? Marvel not at the destruction that is wrought: a person does as he is taught. Ask instead why you continue to teach yourself and your children such things.

[1]NBC Nightly News, April 16, 2007.

[2]Tertullian, De Spectaculis available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.v.xvii.html

[3]Cyprian, Epistle to Donatus available online at http://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.i.html

[4]Anonymous, On the Public Shows (attributed to Cyprian) available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.vii.ii.html

[5]Lactantius, Divine Institutes, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf07.iii.ii.vi.xx.html

Wisdom from my fathers: Cyprian On the Mortality

It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race. Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world.

Unless the battle has preceded, there cannot be a victory: when there shall have been, in the onset of battle, the victory, then also the crown is given to the victors. For the helmsman is recognized in the tempest; in the warfare the soldier is proved. It is a wanton display when there is no danger. Struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth.

Why, then, do we pray and ask that the kingdom of heaven may come, if the captivity of earth delights us.

There is no advantage in setting forth virtue by our words, and destroying the truth by our deeds.

We regard paradise as our country—we already begin to consider the patriarchs as our parents: why do we not hasten and run, that we may behold our country, that we may greet our parents?

The preceding words are all from the treatise On the Mortality by Cyprian of Carthage. The occasion of the treatise was an outbreak of a plague. The treatise offers good medicine to one of the ills of the Western church: the idea that God wants you to be, and even promises you will be, healthy and prosperous. Cyprian demonstrates the Scriptural, theological, and logical reasons such thinking must be abandoned.

Why do I read the church fathers?

Why do I read the church fathers? Why, after thousands of years do I prefer their voice to that of my contemporaries? One reason is that they were not limp wristed theological pansies. The fathers are bold, assertive, certain: yes, even when they might be wrong. This is not only a reason why I read them, it is a reason they are read at all by anyone. Who really wants to toil through 2,000 year old pacifist theology? What is the point of reading men who are afraid to disagree with others and take a stand on the true meaning of Scripture? Rodney King is good drunk, but a lousy theologian. No, we can’t just all get along.

We are told that God did not really create the world in six days. We need to be open and charitable to those who have other view points. Genesis 1-11 did not really happen it is just a picture or symbol to explain the world we are in. Peace, peace. There are more important things then whether God really created the world and everything in it in the space of six days. Is it really a big deal to believe that God could not, or did not, create the world and everything in it in 6 24-hour days? Couldn’t God have used time, evolution, etc. over thousands of years?

This manner of speech may perhaps be plausible or persuasive to those who know not God, and who liken Him to needy human beings, and to those who cannot immediately and without assistance form anything, but require many instrumentalities to produce what they intend. But it will not be regarded as at all probable by those who know that God stands in need of nothing, and that He created and made all things by His Word, while He neither required angels to assist Him in the production of those things which are made, nor of any power greatly inferior to Himself, and ignorant of the Father, nor of any defect or ignorance, in order that he who should know Him might become man. But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation. Whom, therefore, shall we believe as to the creation of the world — these heretics who have been mentioned that prate so foolishly and inconsistently on the subject, or the disciples of the Lord, and Moses, who was both a faithful servant of God and a prophet? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.ii.4,5)

Like a breath of fresh air.

Irenaeus identifies what it really comes down to: who are we going to believe? PhDs or prophets? Scientists or apostles? If denying the plain meaning of Scripture is the price for acceptance and respectability it is too high for me. I welcome and embrace the label of narrow-minded literalist. I will stick with the Bible and the men who defended it against all enemies. I have no compulsion to reconcile what Scripture says with what man thinks.

 It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found [among those who are] blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another God as the Father. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.xxvi.1)

The only one can give an authoritative statement about the creation of the universe is the One who was there. He has, and I’ll take him at his word.

 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
Psalm 33:6