Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Open Letter on the Interfaith Service

To the Congregation of First Baptist (and anyone else interested),

As many of you have heard, I have reached a decision that I cannot take part in the Medfield interfaith service in good conscience. As you all know, I have taken part in it since I started as your pastor. I did so because it seemed to be something that our church had been part of, and a duty of the position. However. I have always felt uneasy about taking part, and over this last year, came to this decision. I feel I owe you an explanation for discontinuing my involvement. Here are my reasons.

First, there has been increasing pressure to avoid the mention of Jesus. For example, last year, in the meeting preparing for the service, a strong objection was raised to the passage in Luke where men come and show thanksgiving to Jesus for healing them. In fact, anything specifically that mentioned about Jesus is viewed as unacceptable by some of those participating in the service, and this has led to an increasing pressure to avoid referencing Jesus and His saving work. If Jesus is all but taboo, and if there is a strong pressure to make Christ disappear, what am I doing there as a Christian pastor? If I, as a Christian, am asked not to pray in Jesus name, or preach about my Lord and savior Jesus Christ (and that is, in fact, the request), lest I offend someone, it seems clear to me that I’m at the wrong service.

Now, on one hand, it makes sense to say, “well, why don’t you, and we (first Baptist), fight to put Jesus back in it”. Here’s the problem. The whole logic of interfaith dialogue and interfaith worship flows in this direction. The idea is to highlight our commonality, and downplay the things that divide and make one distinct. But to do that, we have to give up the things that make us distinct, and that thing that makes us Christians distinct is Christ. The good news - that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all and that Jesus is the way the truth and the life - is not welcome at the interfaith service. How can I take part in that in good conscience?

Second, it’s syncretism. Syncretism is “an amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought”. Think of it this way, it’s pouring all the traditions together and calling them the same thing. But what’s left when that is done is that we (those taking part), have stripped off everything distinctive, and what we are left with is a focus on the act of giving thanks, but a deliberate avoiding of clarity about to whom thanks is being given. It’s just “Thanksgiving for the sake of Thanksgiving”, because if you can’t agree on the concept of God (and that is the case Unitarians, Christians, and Jews don’t agree on their doctrine of God), you are giving thanks to what, collectively? The point of the service is to express thanksgiving… to whom? To God? How is God defined and understood? In what meaningful sense can Christians, Jews, and Unitarians (or for that matter, Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists, or any of the other many different religions) come together for an “interfaith” service? We are unable to agree on the concept of God. We can’t agree on what we are declaring the “worth-ship” of (since that is what worship is, declaring the worth and value of something)? What is the point? We aren’t praying to the same God. We don’t even share the same conception of God, which means that at best it’s a thanksgiving to the nebulous sense of “deity”. But more accurately, it’s just “Thanksgiving for Thanksgiving sake”. It's clearly not a service of thanksgiving to the God who has done more then we can ask or imagine through the saving work of Christ. Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with warnings against idolatry. I cannot take part in that.

Third, and most importantly, I believe that I may be damaging my Christian witness, and the Christian witness of First Baptist, by sending a confusing, dangerous message to the world around. By taking part in this interfaith worship and  by standing sholder to sholder with religious leaders of other religions (not other Christians- other religions- those that do not claim Christ as Lord and savior in any way), some might fairly infer by the fact that I am there that I (or First Baptist) feel there is agreement on essential matters of faith. And why wouldn't they? When we gather and worship in this way, aren’t we saying, in essence, that we all agree in faith, and are brothers and sisters in faith. Aren’t we saying that all religious traditions and spirtualities and faiths are equally valid and that “it’s ok to believe whatever, as long as you are a person of faith”? That is the message we send when we worship together in this manner, and this clearly is not the case.

Remember, not long ago (last winter), a local Unitarian “church” (Milford), was hosting a "medium connection"? For $25 you could attempt to chat with the dearly departed. Great. Another word for that is séance. It’s witchcraft, pure and simple. Now, to be fair, that has not happened here in Medfield. But to even allow someone to think that we are of “like faith” with those who might call the actions of this Unitarian church acceptable, and call those in that “church” “brothers and sisters in faith” is to create a confusing witness. Christians are not brothers and sisters in “like faith” with Unitarians (or Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or whatever other faith might get added in). “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial (2 Corinthians 6:15)?” None. There is only one name in which salvation is found, and to take part and possibly confuse the watching world around is a failure to be salt and light. It sends a dangersous message, and it damages my witness, and the witness of First Baptist. The more I think about it, the more I believe it. Some who take part in the service are brothers and sisters in Christ. But other “churches” and religions are not, and we send a confusing message that “it’s ok to believe whatever, as long as you are a person of faith”, when we worship together in this manner.

Now, I know that some of you have some objections forming in your mind. 

First, didn’t you work with the Episcopal church and the UCC on the VBS? Yes. I worked with Christian churches on a Christian VBS. Churches that at the very least, could agree on the top level issues without which you cannot be a Christian. And furthermore, I insisted that it be a Christian VBS right from the start (and may I say, we were all in agreement- lest anyone take this to mean that we had any disagreement on this- To my knowledge we were all on the same page from the start). So it was not interfaith work, it was ecumenical work- all were Christians, partaking in a Christian VBS that pointed kids to faith in Christ.

Second, so what about ecumenical worship? Christians worshiping together as Christians of a variety of Christian traditions. I have no problem with that, in fact, I think it’s absolutely acceptable and honorable to worship alongside other Christians traditions. In that, we are expressing that we are brothers and sisters “in Christ” (This is probably a watered down litmus test but the question I ask is, could they recite the creed’s of Christianity in good faith. Could they say, with you and I, “I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our lord? Could they confess the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and that someday he will come to judge the living and the dead?). But this is not ecumenical worship, this is interfaith. And that’s where the rub lies.

Third, for a church trying to reach the community with the hope of the gospel, doesn’t this cost us influence? Maybe, but I don’t think so. In fact, I think it will actually heighten our influence. When we say, we are Christians, we worship as Christians, and we do so, because salvation is found in no other name, it will push some people to consider the claims of Christ in a new and fresh way. To think through the message that we proclaim to the world: To consider the message of Christianity. God made the world. He made it perfectly, with us ruling under His authority, and living in relationship with Him. But then something terrible happened. Our first parents, Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying and rebelling against God. They wanted to run things their way, and sought to be their own Lord and God. The result was that they brought God’s judement on themselves and all humanity. Everyone was marred by their sin, so that all follow their steps, sinfully rebel against God and bring God’s just judgment on themselves. That’s the bad news. But in his love, God sent Jesus Christ, the second member of the trinity, God in the flesh, to live perfectly and sinlessly, to die as an atoning sacrifice paying the price that God’s justice demanded for this act of cosmic rebellion, and reconciling us to God if we place our faith in Chirst. Christ rose again on the third day, proving he accomplished all that he claimed he would do. He now sits on the throne of heaven, and someday He will judge the world. We are called to repent and believe the good news, and worship the triune God who has provided this great salvation.

If that message is banned at the interfaith service, if we are not going before our saving God with thanks, I think that it is far more preferable, to not take part and find venues that allow for the message of the gospel to be stated clearly. 

Fourth, does this mean that I feel that I am above the fray, and that we Christians at First Baptist are better than others? Do I think Christians are superior people to those that do not believe that salvation is found in Christ. No and No. I am not saying that Christians are superior or better people than those that are not Christians. It may be that a Unitarian, or Jew, or Hindu, or Muslim is in fact a kinder, nicer, more compassionate, just person than many Christians. Being a Christian does not mean that you are proud because you are a better person than someone else, in fact, the logic of the gospel strikes at the very root of that attitude. It calls us to recognize that we are sinful people in need of salvation because of our deeply flawed, sinful nature. That’s the entrance fee to Christianity, if you will. So we aren’t saying that we are better than others in any way. 

Furthermore, we are not saying that we don’t want to interact with those of other faiths, or no faith at all. As a Christian, I believe that I, First Baptist, and other Christians are called to enter into our community, loving the community, serving the community, and declaring, we are here for the good of the community as Christians. We can work and serve for the good of others, Christian or not. We are not partisan in wanting the best for others. Do unto others as you would have them to you, Jesus says. “Seek the good of the city”, God says through Jeremiah. “Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) We aren’t just here just for ourselves. But to seek the best for all humanity, and certainly Medfield. Hear me on this. I’m not trying to be mean or exclusive, or make our church mean or exclusive. I think it’s one thing to work alongside of someone, or be friends with someone. Christians can work alongside of anyone for the common good, and be friends with anyone. Anyone. And we can talk with anyone. There is no one from whom we withdraw and say, I can have nothing to do with you. But worship is different. When it comes to worship, we must not engage in syncretism and damage our witness, as one writer put it, "genuine witness in the public square can take place through discerning dialogue and engaging conversation as well as acts of human care and mercy. We witness in the public square, but we do not worship there. "

So those are my thoughts. I am not partisan in wanting good for all, and I do not want First Baptist to be some partisan “holy huddle” that looks out for its interest alone. I want First Baptist to be loving and serving the community, seeking it’s good as I and it proclaims the distinctly Christian message that there is hope in a hopeless world, the gospel. But when it comes to worship, I do not believe that I should be taking part and helping lead this service. I am not a religious leader, and Christians are not religious people, or people "of faith". I am a Christian Pastor, and First Baptist is a Christian church, and we are all about worshiping the God who has done more than we can ask or imagine in providing salvation through Christ Jesus. To pretend we’re all the same waters down or worse, eliminates our distinctively Christian message that salvation is found in Christ alone, and thanks belongs to God alone for our provision, hope, and life itself. Christians must not send any other message to a world desperately in need of the hope of the gospel. I must not send any other message. 

I have no quarrel with those of other faiths who do what they wish to do. They can worship as they wish, and we can have sincere disagreements, and live at peace with each other. I don’t begrudge them their worship or practice. But let’s not kid ourselves, we are not all in agreement in faith. A nebulous sense of the “holy” is not the God of the Christian bible, and we must not send any other message. Christians should not pretend something that is not true, is true so that everyone can hold hands and sing. 

As I say this, I’m not trying to be a mean curmudgeon, or arrogant; I’m trying instead to be logical and wise. And the more I've thought about it, the more convinced that my participation in the interfaith service sends the inadvertent message that I believe it’s ok to believe whatever - even if it's contrary to the Gospel - as long as one is a person of "faith”, and while I am not so proud as to think that I can come to the end of any subject, I’m with Luther in saying that “unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason” this is the position I will hold. I leave it to you and your conscience to do what you feel is right regarding your participation in the interfaith service.

But as you consider what to do, let me point you to the words of one of my favorite bloggers and writers, Kevin Deyoung. He captured part problem with interfaith services a few years back when looking at the inauguration of the president. He wroteImagine it's early in the first century, in and around Palestine. A new emperor, or local governor, has come to power. As a nod to the diverse religious traditions of the land, there is a prayer service to the gods on behalf of the new leader. In the mix we find worshipers of Asclepius, priests of the Artemis cult, believers in Hermes, leaders in the local fertility cult. Would we find any Jews there? What about Jesus? Can you imagine Jesus participating in such an event?  With the warnings of Israel's history and the seriousness of the Ten Commandments, is there any way Jesus, would possibly agree to participate in such a ceremony? We aren't talking about giving taxes to Caesar, or praying for the Emperor in synagogue worship, or living out your faith in public. We are talking about a worship service where the "God" worshipped is the "God of our many understandings", to borrow a recent phrase. and the tacit assumption is that we can all share in genuine spiritual fellowship. In Revelation, as best as we can tell the context, Jesus rebuked several of the churches for simply going along with ritual meals to various gods in the guilds of the day. What would he say about sharing a worship service? Would the Apostle Paul, who warned his churches of syncretism and idolatry so often, consider for even a moment participating in a worship service where several different gods were invoked? The same points all stand in relationships to interfaith thanksgiving services. I leave it to your consciences to make the choice about whether you participate in the interfaith service of Medfield.

Your Pastor,
Jonathan Chechile

P.S. Here are some articles that helped me clarify my thinking over the last month as it became clear this would be an issue.
Salt & Light: Syncretism? - Prof. John T. Pless 
The Problem with Interfaith - Nadeem Abdul Hamid (a Muslim take- Very interesting)
Interfaith Prayer Services - Dr. Albert Mohler (Audio Interview)

Are interfaith worship services appropriate for Christians - Ray Pritchard

Friday, November 8, 2013

From the Newsletter: Funeral or Rebirth

A couple days after the business meeting, the Moderator of my church texted me and asked, “is FBC headed  to a funeral, or are these the labor pains of a rebirth. I think and pray it is the latter”
I think it will be the latter, because it is the kick in the pants that we have all needed. I’m serious. Every church should be a disciple making church. No church gets a special dispensation, a get out of evangelizing and disciple making free card. Jesus commands us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:18-20). He also makes clear that if we don’t bear fruit, the ax will come.
That goes for ever church, and every person. And if we don’t do this, it will be the end of First Baptist as a church family. We don’t live in a Christianized world where people just drift into church because “it’s the right thing to do”. Those days are gone. We know this. We know that we live in a post Christian neo pagan environment, and the younger people are, the more true this is. What this means is that we have to be faithful to the call, and if we are not willing to do what God has called to do, we will die from disobedience. I believe that the future of our church could be very bright, this crisis can be the very thing that re-launches us in a new and fresh way, because we are being shown a flashing neon sign that says if we are making disciples, we live, and if we don’t, we die.
Now, as I say that, let me add these thoughts.
First, this is why we have been focusing in on evangelism and apologetics recently. This is why over the last 6 weeks we have done The Reason for God: Conversations on faith and life, a DVD study thinking through how to have conversations with those that don’t know Christ (which we may re-run at another time if there is interest). This is why we are starting a new study next week on Mark Dever’s book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism. This is why we are encouraging you to be Matthews, to do the My Hope with Billy Graham outreach, inviting people into your homes, sharing a DVD based gospel presentation, and then giving your own testimony and answering questions as you can. This is why you will see an idea that Linda Dougherty has suggested in the newsletter, and this is why, if you have an outreach idea kicking around in your mind, you need to share it. Everyone has different gifts and different abilities to see things. Don’t be shy. We need to all be all in when it comes to changing the direction of the church.
But second, understand that our drive to change the trends has to come from love for the lost. If we try to go out to make disciples just to save our church, it won’t work. People can see through that approach. If they think we are trying to using them “to save our thing”, they will walk away in disgust. Our motivation has to be obedience to the commission and a love of the lost. We need to have a broken heart that people are facing a very real eternity separated from God. So often, Christians share, but we do it without love. We are so busy trying to convince people that we are right that we don’t convince them that we love them, which brings us around to that old adage that “people don’t care what you know till they know you care”. Our heart has to be their good. I preached at a funeral recently, and I spoke of heaven and hell, and talked about their future in a very real heaven or hell, and the hope of the gospel, and someone told me after that “preaching that message was the wrong message for these kind of people”. I responded with comedian Penn Gillette’s comment that “if you believe that someone is standing in front of a truck, at a certain point you tackle them”. Love of the lost and obedience to Christ is the only thing that makes you tackle them. Only this drives you to say, “There is no better news in all the world. To not share it is an act of cruelty and evil”.
We are often accused of being unloving for telling people they need to turn to Christ. This is patently stupid. If Christ is the way the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by Him, as John 14 makes clear, what is unloving is to not share that news. We need to be sharing the hope of the gospel, because the future of the church rides on it, but more importantly, because we are commanded to, and because we love the lost.
Third, see how the gospel empowers you to do evangelism despite your fear. The gospel actually gives you the strength and courage to share the gospel. I know that evangelism is scary. I get that. I really do. I’ve had those movements when I try to talk about Jesus, and the words seem to stick at the back of my mouth, and I’ve felt like I don’t want to bother people. I get that. But the gospel tells us that God loved us so much he sent his one and only son, Christ Jesus the second member of the trinity, to the cross to save us. This humbles us when we are proud, because it tells us that we are so sinful that Christ had to die for us, but it lifts us up when we feel low because it tells us that God values us so much, that he would die for us. It also strengthens us, because if we know that we have the acceptance of the father, we can say, “So what if you mock, I am accepted by the sovereign God of all. What can you do to me? 'To live is Christ, to die is gain', if you mock me, sneer at me, so what? I have the Father saying 'well done my good and faithful servant' and that means much more than the disdain of anyone”. In the gospel, we have the best news in the world. Salvation has come in Christ. you are justified by faith in Christ Jesus, who died for your sins and rose again. But we don’t just have the best news, we also have an incredible source of strength that empowers us and sends us out to proclaim this amazing message.
Fourth, see the force of the gospel for creating a powerful community witness. The gospel is the thing that changes our community witness in a radical way. The gospel tells us that we are united by the blood of Christ, that rich and poor, Black, White, Asian, Latino, young and old, all are one in Christ. And what that means is that there is no one that can say, I am superior. It tells us that while in the world achievement is held up as the supreme good, our standing is not based on achievement, because you did nothing to be brought into community with Christ or each other.
The effect of these facts is that the gospel changes how we relate to one another. It gives us the ability to forgive and show radical kindness to others when they don’t “deserve it”, because we know that we have been forgiven by God, and shown radical kindness through Christ Jesus. Since he has done it for us, we can do the same to those in our church and the world. This is just a little taste of how the gospel changes how we do community. On and on the list goes. And if we allow the gospel to shape our community, and if the world will sees a community centered on the love of Christ, not on their likes and dislikes, or even their liking those like people who have been their friends for thirty years, but loving the outsider and the stranger, and yes, “those people” that we’ve all but zoned out of Medfield, it will be a powerful apologetic for the gospel, and make our church, a place where God is glorified.
No one wants a funeral. Least of all me. I don't think that we are. I think God is forcing our hand. The question is, what will we do? Will we allow the Gospel to shape us, and send us out on our Fathers business? Will we allow the gospel to be the center of our community, the thing that unites us as a community of love that is attractive to the world around? Will we allow the gospel to be the thing that drives us, the thing that shapes us, and fills us with love, and sends us out with boldness? Will we look to the cross, and not ourselves, and love the lost as Christ loved us? Will we cry out to God to act, and then obediently obey His commission? If we don’t, it’s game over. But I don't think that is what is going to happen. I’m with Dennis. I think these are the labor pains of rebirth. I think there are many, who want to see God do something awesome here once more, and I think he will. I believe that will see a rebirth that is more than any of us can ask or image.