Brett Kunkle, Sean McDowell and I have been taking students to Berkeley for several years now, creating and facilitating trips to challenge young Christians and expose them to the arguments they may eventually face in their university experience. We typically invite local atheists to join us on these trips to make the case for what they believe. In the past we’ve listened to presentations from Richard Carrier, Mark Thomas, David Fitzgerald and Larry Hicok. After each presentation we have the opportunity to engage each speaker in a question and answer session. We also spend several days on the campus of UC Berkeley, talking with students and answering their questions about the Christian Worldview. We meet with the campus atheist clubs and sometimes even engage in public forum discussions. We learn a lot from this trip, so I would like to share a few observations on what I’ve learned from our interactions.
We ask unbelieving speakers to come to our group to spend some time talking about why they are atheists. They are thoughtful, passionate and happy to tell us the reasons for their disbelief. Some offer classic objections to Christianity. Others argue against God’s existence from the problem of evil. After several hours of careful listening over the years, I’ve begun to recognize a number of commonalities in the stories and explanations I’ve heard from a variety of unbelievers on our Berkeley trips. Here are a few of my observations (in no particular order):
It’s Not Always About the Evidence
Some atheists are not as unconvinced by the evidence as they are upset with believers. We see a general disdain for Christians as we talk with our invited atheist speakers. They consistently point to alleged evils of Christianity (and Christians), even as they develop an evidential case against the existence of God. The evidence from history, science or philosophy isn’t always the underlying issue. Many are more troubled by a past experience or some perception about a Christian (or group of Christians).
Dad Has A Lot To Do With It
I want to be careful not to over generalize here, but I often find a pattern in these interactions related to the relationship some of these speakers and guests have with their fathers. When asked to describe their relationship with their dads, hardcore atheists often have little good to say about them. One of these speakers said the best thing his dad ever did for him was to die. Many have fathers who were either absent, mean-spirited or overbearing, and (sadly) many of them had fathers who were involved in Christian ministries of one kind or another.
Sometimes It’s About Politics
I also find many of our speakers have an underlying belief we, as Christians, are a monolithic conservative Republican voting block. They resent our ability to sway elections, and many of them would self-identify as “progressive” in their political or social ideology. It sometimes seems as though their animosity toward conservative Republicans informed their approach toward us. We are often able to bridge this divide by sharing our common concern for the poor and for the environment. As Christians, we share a broad concern for the world around us transcending politics. Once they realize this, many of our atheist guests soften slightly in their approach toward us.
They Really Do Think We Are Stupid
Sadly, in the early days of our trips to Berkeley, it was clear our invited atheist guests didn’t think much of us as an audience. On the first mission trip, our guests assumed we would be simple-minded, culturally primitive, scientifically unsophisticated and philosophically illiterate. These atheists had spoken to other Christian groups in the past, and their experiences apparently left them with this impression (many of them told us this was the case). Hopefully our interaction with them over the years has demonstrated the existence of Christians who have reasoned though their trust in the claims of Christianity. We obviously come to different conclusions about the evidence than our atheist counterparts, but our path toward what we believe travels down a similar rational, evidential road. Our young Christian groups have been engaging, thoughtful and evidentially articulate. Hopefully, we’ve been good ambassadors for Christ in a hostile environment.
If you’re a fan of this website and subscribe to this blog, you’re already part of the choir to whom I’m preaching. You get it. You’ve probably started engaging your non-believing friends with the calm, confident character of Christ. I hope my brief list of observations from Berkeley are helpful as you continue to engage unbelievers. Many skeptics reject the claims of Christianity for reasons other than the strength (or weakness) of our evidences. It’s important for us to think carefully about their individual circumstances, ask the right questions, and love them as Christ has already loved us.
The first community of saints reflected the power and design of God in their lives as a family of believers. The early history of the Church simply reflected the Biblical record from the Book of Acts describing the nature and essence of the first community of saints. The observations of those who witnessed the early Church should inspire and guide us. If we were to emulate the earliest energized believers, our churches would transform the culture and inspire a new generation. How can we, as Christians today, become more like the Church that changed the world and transformed the Roman Empire? We must learn the truth, strive for unity, live in awe, serve in love, share with courage and overflow with joy. These six important characteristics were held by the earliest congregations:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Six simple attributes were observed in the earliest believers. These principles serve as a template and guide for those of us who want to restore the passion and impact of the early Church. If we employ them today, we’ll create healthy, vibrant, transformative churches. It begins with a commitment to truth:
Principle #1: Learn the Truth
The Church must be passionately committed to the pursuit of truth:
“…and they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching…”
There is a truth about God. There is a truth about whether or not He exists and a truth about His nature (if He does exist). Jesus certainly had a position about the nature of truth and the nature of God. He believed objective truth exists and could be grasped. Jesus was all about evidence and truth; the evidence demonstrating his deity and the truth about God’s Kingdom. Jesus provided his followers with proof and convincing evidences (even after appearing to them in the resurrection):
To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.
The earliest believers learned from this example. Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost (Acts chapter two) was an effort to get his listeners to examine the evidence of fulfilled prophecy. He described Jesus as “a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst”. The Greek word for attested is “apodeiknumi” and it means to demonstrate, prove or show. In essence, Peter was saying, “Hey, God gave you proof that Jesus was God through the miracles that Jesus worked, including His resurrection.” Peter wasn’t just making a statement to the crowd; he was developing a persuasive argument for the deity of Jesus. And as the first disciples spent time together, they came to understand the difference between teaching and training. Teaching that does not equip us to be the Church in a lost world, is of little value to those in our world who are hurting and seeking answers. When believers come together to learn about God, we are focused on more than just the truth we are learning. We know we are preparing for something we are about to do and something we desperately want to be:
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
The Church ought to come together to train. It should come together to prepare. We must realize we are here to love and serve those around us so we can reason with those who are seeking answers to life’s deepest and most important questions. The Church must be persuaded objective, transcendent truth exists and is transformational. We must remember salvation by grace alone is the distinctive truth claim of the Christian Worldview. We've seen God work in our own lives and we've seen God work in the lives of others. We should spend our time together trying our best to understand the truth and the culture denying it.
In this short series, we’ll describe the value of these six important characteristics of the early Church. It all begins with a commitment to truth, but this commitment will cause the other five attributes to emerge. Church groups have taken every shape and form in the two thousand years since the first community of saints. The current form is not nearly as important as the transcendent purpose of God’s people here on earth. As we look deeply at the nature of the first community as it was described in the Book of Acts, we see God’s design for the Church. The Church is not a place to meet; it is a people to be. When we, as a Church, are foundationally committed to the truth, the resulting change in our character will be noticeable and transformative.
After speaking at a church recently, I was approached by a woman who identified herself as a defense attorney and a Christian. She told me she struggled to understand how some of the suspects I’d arrested for cold-case murders had been able to live law-abiding, uneventful lives for thirty years (or more) following their crimes. She seemed to believe these men and women should not have been unable to live amongst the rest of us without giving themselves away. Her surprise is common amongst those who live and work with killers. When I eventually take a murderer to jail years after he or she committed the crime, their friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers typically express disbelief: “There’s no way Jack could have committed that murder, I’ve known him for twenty years. He’s the sweetest man I’ve ever known!” When a suspect is finally convicted of the crime (and eventually confesses to the murder), those who knew him or her are typically shocked. They shouldn’t be. My cold case murderers were not serial killers. They simply committed one horrific crime and then spent the rest of their life living just like you and me. Nothing in their demeanor ever gave away the fact they were capable of such a thing. They looked like the rest of us. Why? Because they are just like the rest of us; capable of greatness, but fallen to their core.
Even before I was a Christian, I recognized the innately fallen nature of humans. If you are a parent, you also have some empirical evidence from which to draw. You know you don’t have to teach your infant to be selfish, impatient, rude and self-serving. Infants must be taught to be just the opposite; goodness is not an innate quality of humans. We don’t come into the world with this type of disposition. We must be taught how to love, how to think beyond our own needs and desires, how to share and appreciate others. Do you remember the experiment you studied in high school in which monkeys were taken from their mothers and raised without any personal contact, comfort or love? How did they turn out? They were sociopaths; angry, evil and dangerous. This was, in fact, their base nature unless they were taught to be something different.
Both atheists and theists have to explain the innately fallen nature of humans, especially given the fact we are simultaneously capable of kindness and nobility. This is often described as “the enigma of man” and the Christian Scriptures capture and describe this reality with surprising clarity and foresight. While we have been created in the image of God (and, as a result, are capable of greatness) we were given the dangerous freedom to love genuinely. We sometimes abuse this freedom as rebellious creatures. The Bible describes human nature as innately fallen from birth, incapable of true goodness (without God’s assistance) and unwilling (on our own) to seek the face of God:
Our Beginnings Are Not Innocent Enough
From the very start, (from our birth), we are not innocent and inclined toward goodness. Instead, we are born as the offspring of Adam, inclined toward sin:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned
1 Corinthians 15:20-22
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
Our Natural Condition Is Not Capable Enough
Even as we grow and learn to be good from those who teach and love us, we are still filled with the inclination to do what is wrong. All of us struggle with this if we are honest about it. We are slaves to our inclinations. We have a hidden thought life, and this life exposes who and what we really are. And there are many times when we choose to act on these thoughts. You and I both know this is true. We are not consistently capable of true goodness:
The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin
“What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in His sight; How much less one who is detestable and corrupt, Man, who drinks iniquity like water!”
Our Desire Is Not Strong Enough
We are also typically uninterested in the things of God. In our natural state, we are rebellious and our desire for God is weak and fading. Our fallen nature prevents us from recognizing or understanding spiritual things:
…and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life
1 Corinthians 2:14
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
…as it is written,
There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.
Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,
The poison of asps is under their lips;
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;
Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace have they not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
Our Lives Are Not Righteous Enough
Even our “good deeds” are not all that good. Sure, we may think we are doing something noble, but there is generally something in it for us; some hidden, self-serving motive. And even our best efforts pale by comparison to the standard of righteousness existing in the God of the Universe.
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.”
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
Our “Goodness” Is Not Our Own
In case you think those moments of compassion or righteousness you occasionally achieve were the result of your own ability or effort, think again. Even our best moments are simply the work of God. On our own we are completely incapable of choosing God or doing anything righteous in the sight of God. When we do act righteously, it is simply God’s Spirit and Word acting within us:
No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.
And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.”
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
1 Thessalonians 2:13
And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
The Bible paints a pretty ugly picture of our human nature, doesn’t it? It sure sounds like we are lost and wandering, incapable of seeking God and incapable of impressing God with our own “good” efforts. It sounds like bad news, and that is exactly what it is. But there is something very special about the Christian message. There is Good News: the God of the universe is not going to judge us on our fallen nature or our inadequate efforts. Instead, He is going to allow Jesus to pay the price for our sin and save us as an act of grace. We may be fallen, but we do matter to God:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)
And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men,
…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.
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, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
So why is this “Doctrine of Man” so important? Why do we, as Christians, need to understand the Christian position on this issue? Why is a proper understanding of humanity so important to Christian Orthodoxy? Well, if we don’t first understand our desperate need, we won’t come to understand the power and urgency of the Good News of Jesus. If you don’t understand your true condition, your fallen nature and the inability of your own efforts to save yourself, you won’t move to seek and find the Savior who has come to give us what we simply can’t earn on our own. We need a proper understanding of our human nature so we can have a correct understanding of our spiritual need and a proper appreciation for the power and grace of God. This understanding will eventually shape our love and awe of God, our gratitude for Salvation and our love of the Savior. Without an understanding of who we are, we can never truly appreciate who God is.
In a culture that has a hard time accepting the notion there are objective, transcendent truths about the nature of God, it’s sometimes hard to take a stand for what we believe without offending someone. Non-Christians aren’t the only people who get offended. The cultural acceptance of relativism (and pluralism) has already impacted the Church dramatically. “Doctrine” has become a dirty word. Many current theologians and Christian writers reject the claim any established doctrine of Christianity is objectively true. These thinkers and church leaders have been profoundly affected by the culture around them; those who refuse to relinquish the orthodox teachings of Christianity are seen as rigid fundamentalists. Some “postmodern” theologians believe all classic Christian claims are now up for negotiation:
“…the doctrine of the Trinity is still on the table. Some people, it seems to me, would like for us to no longer debate certain ‘sacred’ doctrines — the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of scripture, the nature of marriage etc. And these persons tend to get very jumpy when emergent-types discuss these ‘sacrae doctrinae’, especially in books and at conferences that are being taped. ‘This is dangerous,’ they say. I say it’s dangerous to stop talking about these things, and it leads to a hegemony among those who already control the seminaries, colleges, magazines, radio stations, conferences, publishing houses, and magazines. We (Emergent Village) will continue to debate such things” (Tony Jones, from his Theoblogy Blog entry, “De Trinitate” – emphasis in the original).
It’s interesting to note the effort to seek and uphold the ancient, objective, Biblical truth is now seen as “hegemony” (the desire of those in authority to dominate and exercise control over others). The pursuit and defense of truth is now seen as oppressive, not only by unbelievers, but also by fellow believers. Christians today seem to have forgotten how important truth was to Jesus and to the first believers. Many current Christian teachers actually believe it is divisive for us to take a stand for truth at all, and they dislike being publicly rebuked for holding a position described as “un-Biblical”. But both John the Baptist and Jesus were quick to point out the false teaching of those around them, and they did so in a pointed and biting manner. Take for example, John’s public condemnation of the Pharisees on the shore of the Jordan River:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves,’ We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
John sounds pretty bold to me. He had no problem calling people out for their beliefs. Was he being Godly? Was He following a Biblical model? One thing is certain: he was behaving in a manner consistent with Jesus. Look at how Jesus addressed the same group:
“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”
Both John and Jesus had no problem addressing false teaching and warning false teachers. Perhaps there is something we can learn about the importance of identifying what is true and addressing what is false:
We Should Call Out the Teacher By Name
We simply must identify those who are teaching error. Paul certainly had no problem doing this and he instructed those who followed him to do the very same thing. In these passages written to Timothy in Paul’s “pastoral” letter, Paul does not hesitate to name names. He publicly identifies false teachers and ungodly men so others can be warned:
2 Timothy 4:9-10
Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica
2 Timothy 1:15
You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.
1 Timothy 1:18-20
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.
We are called to (1) Identify false ideas, and (2) Publicly expose those who are either living by or teaching others these ideas.
We Should Describe the Teaching
We also need to be very articulate about what is false in the teaching of these false teachers. We need to take the time to describe the error. Paul also did this, even as he named the false teachers by name:
2 Timothy 2:16-18
But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some.
We are called to (1) Know the truth well enough to see the lie coming, and (2) Describe the lie to others so that they can be warned.
We Should Do All We Can to Silence the Teacher
In some ways the first two principles seem rather defensive, particularly when compared to the next set of principles which are a bit more aggressive and proactive when dealing with error. Paul asked his followers to do their best to stop false teaching by silencing the false teachers and denying them a platform from which to teach.
For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain.
2 John 9-11
Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
We are called to (1) Understand how false teaching impacts believers and their families, (2) Recognize the worldly motives of false teachers, and then (3) Do all we can to these teachers the platform from which they can spread the lie.
We Should Refute the Teaching
But what do we do about those who have already gained a foothold in the Christian community teaching false ideas and doctrines? How are we to respond once the error has already started to permeate the Church? Paul tells his followers that they are to refute the lies. They are to identify and demonstrate why the false teaching is false, and then replace this false teaching with the truth. They are to do this in an emphatic and strong manner:
Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless-not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
This testimony is true. For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith…
We are called to (1) Identify doctrinal errors and describe their false nature, (2) Strongly correct teachers who teach this kind of error, and (3) Replace the errors by describing the Biblical truth of the orthodox Christian Worldview.
We Should Avoid Those Who Continue to Follow or Teach the Lies
Even though we may make a dedicated effort to identify, call out, and refute false teaching and false teachers, many may still decide to follow lies, particularly if some worldly desire can be satisfied by accepting a lie. How are we to live in regard to people who either teach falsely or live according to false views? Well, according to Paul, we are to avoid people like this:
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
2 Thessalonians 3:6
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.
We are called to (1) Avoid those who have embraced false teaching, and (2) Warn and ultimately reject those who are false teachers. Paul is clear about how we are to treat those who are living according to false teaching. We are not to try to make peace with or embrace this kind of person or teaching. God calls us to separate from people who say they are Christians, but are following false teaching. That’s pretty severe, but it is what God clearly calls us to do if we are to take the words of Scripture seriously.
The Truth Matters to God
God is calling us to be very careful about Biblical truth. We must study the truth, then set careful boundaries so we will know when someone has crossed over into a lie or false teaching. God then wants us to deal strongly with those who are leading others astray. Why would God require us to be so harsh and judgmental? God calls His children to study, understand and defend the truth because the truth does matter to God. Faith, in and of itself, is not what God is looking for. It’s not enough to be sincere or intense. Faith, in and of itself, has no magic power. It’s a faithful, reasonable trust in the truth that matters to God. Trust placed in the correct and true God of the universe is what matters to God. That’s why God is so particular about truth and calls us to have an accurate understanding of who He is. And that’s why God has called us to treat heresy very seriously.