Does Social Networking Lead to Heresy?

I received an interesting message last night from a former student who is now attending seminary. He emailed me while he was sitting in class — apparently not paying a great deal of attention, but that’s beside the point — to tell me that the professor was making the case that social networking (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) is un-Christian.

In the view of this professor, social networking leads to a heresy called docetism, which holds that Jesus was not truly human but merely appeared to have a physical body.

I didn’t immediately see the connection until my friend explained a bit further. The basic argument is that social networking pulls us away from physical human connections.  We prefer to interact in cyberspace rather than in real life and consequently begin to devalue the physical body. The result of this, the professor argued, is that we are headed down the slippery slope toward docetism.

A few thoughts:

First, it is true that technology is not merely neutral in its effects on the human condition. For example, the industrial revolution had far-reaching effects that extended well beyond the invention of various tools and machines. Over time, the rapid expansion of technology led people to leave their farms and move into large cities. Large cities promote dramatically different lifestyles and family dynamics than farming communities and small towns. The technology actually changed the ways in which we live and interact, positively and negatively.

Similarly, social networking has inherent benefits and drawbacks that are not completely apparent to us yet. One possible benefit is the ability to quickly update my friends and family on major life events. I can keep up with people and share information in a very short period of time and with minimal effort. In that way it can contribute to my sense of community, especially if the people I know through social media are also real-life friends, people that are truly a part of my world.

On the other hand, social media can create a false sense of community, in which I believe that friendship consists of short factual updates about what I ate for breakfast, or of brief statements of opinion, like my personal feelings about Rebecca Black. Some studies even indicate that social networking contributes to narcissism, because I begin to believe that my friends are a sort of personal fan club, cheering me on as I eat my next bite of Shredded Wheat.

Second, we need to be careful not to rapidly jump to the best-case or worst-case scenario regarding a particular technology. It seems a stretch to assume that because social networking can lead to isolationism that it will therefore lead to a formal heresy like docetism. I’m not sure that it would occur to most Christians who use social media to make that sort of an intellectual leap.

On the other hand, too many of us wholeheartedly embrace technology without evaluating it. It is quite possible and even likely that using social media changes the ways in which we think and process information, and even our perceptions of God and others. For a great book on the effect of technology on culture, check out Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

Finally, we have a responsibility to carefully examine our use of technology in light of Scripture. How does my use of Facebook harmonize with Scriptural commands to make the most of my time here on earth (Eph 5:15-16)? Does Twitter serve as a self-promotional tool or as a tool to promote the kingdom of God? Are my interactions on social media encouraging and edifying, or silly and demeaning to the image of God in others? Does social networking, on balance, help or hinder my ability to enter into true and God-honoring relationships with other people?

These are critical questions, and ones that we ask too infrequently.

Questions for you: What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of social media, in your opinion? How do you go about evaluating your use of social networking in light of the Scripture? Are there other questions that we need to be asking as we interact with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media?

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Did Constantine Invent the Deity of Christ?

A few people have asked me recently about the role of the Roman Emperor Constantine in pushing the Church toward the affirmation of Christ’s deity.  Since we’ve been discussing the essentials of Christianity, this is a good opportunity to write about the issue.

The argument some have encountered goes like this: Prior to the fourth century, most people viewed Jesus as a great human teacher, but one who was certainly not divine. When Constantine became a Christian toward the end of his life, he wanted to strongly emphasize Christ’s deity in order to shore up his own power and eliminate competing religions. In order to accomplish this, he convened the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 to strongly affirm that Jesus is God. Any documents that indicated otherwise were destroyed.

One part of the summary above is correct: Constantine did have a role in convening the Nicean Council in A.D. 325. Actually, it is also true that the Council strongly affirmed Christ’s deity.

However, the Church had viewed Jesus as divine for hundreds of years before the Nicaean Council convened. The Council was convened in response to a particular threat, which was the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter Arius, who claimed that Jesus was a created being. The Council of Nicaea strongly denounced Arius and proclaimed the deity of Christ through a formal creed. But they were only affirming what the Church had held from its inception:

The New Testament strongly affirms Christ’s deity in no uncertain terms. Simply read the New Testament as a whole and you get the picture that one of its main purposes was to affirm that Jesus is indeed God. Look at passages like John 1:1; Hebrews 1:1-3; Colossians 2:9; John 8:58; Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 12:8; and many, many others. Some will argue that all of these passages were late additions to the text and that Jesus never claimed deity.  But there is simply no manuscript evidence to suggest the text was altered in this way. From cover to cover, the New Testament proclaims Christ’s deity; far from being affirmed in a few isolated texts, Christ as God in the flesh is one of the primary themes of the New Testament canon.

Early church fathers (prior to the 4th century) affirmed Christ’s deity. Justin Martyr (A.D. 150), Irenaeus (A.D. 180), Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 190) and many others affirmed Christ’s deity long before Constantine was in the picture.

Arianism was soundly condemned at the Council of Nicaea because it was seen as outside of the bounds of traditional Christianity. In contrast to Dan Brown’s claims in The DaVinci Code, Jesus’ deity was not decided by a close vote — it was clearly and strongly affirmed by the vast majority of participants at the Council.  The reason was because most of them viewed Arius’ views as heresy and blasphemy. He was exiled as a result, although he returned a few years later to cause more problems.

To put it simply, the New Testament church affirmed Christ’s deity from the very beginning and saw it as an essential part of their faith. In fact, they were persecuted for refusing to worship the emperor alongside Jesus — they insisted upon worshiping Jesus alone.

Question for you: Are there other issues or concerns surrounding Christ’s deity that you would like me to discuss here?

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Thursday Fun — The Greatest College Prank Ever?

We’ll return to the discussion of essential doctrine next Monday, but I ran across a fun story I wanted to share with my readers. Some of my best memories from college were the (mostly) harmless pranks my friends and I played on roommates and friends. Today I ran across this story, though, which pretty much tops (by a large margin) everything we did.

It seems a group of engineering students in 1967 in Great Britain created six ‘UFOs’ out of plastic and filled them with boiled bread dough that was supposed to look like mashed human brains.  Then they planted them all over England and waited to see what would happen.

It turns out the authorities were very concerned that this was some sort of Soviet plot, so they gathered the UFOs and took them away for study.  One story said the Americans even attempted to purchase the UFOs from Great Britain to discover the secrets of alien life (or of Soviet intelligence).

Needless to say, when the plot was revealed, the authorities were unhappy. But seriously — what a great prank! And what a great illustration of the creativity and ingenuity of college students with a bit of extra time!

Just imagine if it were harnessed toward something productive…like the Great Commission.

Question for you: What ‘s the funniest prank you have ever pulled or seen pulled on somebody in college? (Note: Please make sure it’s appropriate to post on a church blog — if you cross the line, I will delete your comment).

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Mormonism and Orthodoxy: Does the Trinity Matter?

The college town in which I live has a higher concentration of  Mormon missionaries than any other place I’ve lived (Mormons are also known as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). It is not unusual for my home to be visited by missionaries multiple times in a single month. As a result of its prominence in our community, students and adults frequently ask me how the theology of Mormonism compares to that of Christianity.

I mentioned in a previous post that I would be writing about the “essentials” of the Christian faith over the next few weeks, and this post is a continuation of that series. One of the most significant ways in which Mormon doctrine varies from that of traditional Christianity is in its understanding of the nature of God.  To put it plainly, Mormonism denies the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. As seen from the link, they argue that the Trinity was a late addition to the Christian faith, one that is non-essential for Christians and is in fact false doctrine. Perhaps the most frequent argument they use against the Trinity is to say that the word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible — a true statement, but one akin to saying that because the Constitution does not use the phrase “separation of powers” the concept is therefore absent.

The doctrine of the Trinity is that there is only One God, who exists in Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Mormonism differs from orthodoxy because it ultimately amounts to a subtle form of polytheism — Jesus, the Son of God, did not exist from eternity past, but instead became a god through obedience and faithfulness to His Father.  Faithful people (read: Mormons) can also become gods through obedience and belief in Jesus. This is their doctrine of theosis, which amounts to a plurality of gods — polytheism. (Note: The links in the above paragraphs are to the official LDS website — I’m obviously not endorsing their views but am providing the direct links so you can confirm that I’m not misrepresenting their theology).

It is a critical issue, and one that truly does separate Christianity from the cults. The Scripture does not use the word Trinity, but is clear on the concept — which is why the Nicene Creed was drafted by the Church in A.D. 325.  It was a response to a heretic named Arius, who insisted (as the Mormons of today) that Jesus was a created being who became divine.  Here is some Scriptural evidence for the Trinity:

  • There is only one God who rules the entire Universe — not just this planet (Is 45:5; Dt 6:4; Is 42:8; Dt 4:35; Is 40:25-26; Ps 8:3-4).
  • Jesus is God and existed as God from before time began (Jn 1:1; Col 2:9; Heb 1:3; Jn 8:57-59; Jn 20:27-28).
  • The Holy Spirit is a personal Being who is God (Acts 5:3-4; Jn 16:4-15; 2 Cor 3:17-18; 1 Cor 12:4-6).
  • The Scripture repeatedly puts the Three members of the Trinity together in formulations that imply oneness, not just of purpose but also of nature and Name (Mt 28:18-20; 2 Cor 13:14; Mt 3:16-17; Eph 1:3-14).

There is little doubt that the Scripture supports the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and it is a mark of orthodoxy for Christians. Far from being an optional idea, it speaks to the very core of our faith.

So my question for you: What are the practical implications of the Trinity for the spiritual life? For example, if Jesus or the Holy Spirit were not divine, would it matter to our faith? Why or why not?

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What Doctrines Are Essential?

The discussion surrounding Rob Bell over the past couple of weeks has prompted me to think quite a bit about doctrine. A number of people involved in the discussion have argued that the question of hell is not that critical to the Christian faith. To some it is one peg that can safely be removed without threatening the foundation of our belief system. I disagree with their claim, but this post is less about defending the doctrine of hell and more about the larger subject of doctrine itself.

That claim started me processing — what beliefs do I consider absolutely essential? There are some beliefs that I  hold loosely, and there are others that can not be removed without destroying the fabric of my faith. Our college ministry actually has an Essentials Bible study, the purpose of which is to train believers in those doctrines that are foundational to the faith.

Here are a few of the essentials, in my view (I’m hoping to blog in more detail about each of these in the coming weeks):

  • The triune nature of the only God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
  • The full deity and humanity of Christ
  • The authority/inerrancy of Scripture
  • The crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus as a substitionary payment for sin
  • Eternal life as an absolutely free gift for those who believe in Jesus (apart from works)
  • The literal and physical return of Jesus in the future (the timing is much less critical to me than the fact itself)

Of course this is not a comprehensive list of my beliefs, but just the ones that I view as critical to the faith. For example, I happen to hold to a pre-millennial, pre-tribulational view of eschatology, but I don’t see it as foundational to all that I hold dear. On the other hand, if you were to remove the deity of Christ or the free gift of eternal life, you’d be removing a supporting beam of Christianity as I see it.

More to come — I’m on vacation this week, so I might not be blogging as much, but I’d like to hear from you nonetheless.

Question: What do you view as critical to the Christian faith, and why? Do you agree with my list, or would you add or remove anything?

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Communication and Culture: How Do We Learn?

It goes without saying (almost) that the ways in which we communicate information have changed dramatically in the past 15-20 years. When I began college I still wrote letters to my friends using pen and paper; even though email was around, I had to wait in line at the computer lab in my dorm to use it. The internet was only just beginning to be widely available, and I didn’t have regular access to it until my second or third year of college. Virtually nobody had a cell phone — if somebody called while you were away from home, they had to leave a message and wait for you to call back.  Text messaging wasn’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye.

I wonder sometimes if all of this technological change has affected the ways in which our brains learn and process information.  I’ve always loved reading – even the look and feel of a brand new book makes me happy in a way I can’t quite describe. But I wonder if students and young adults still regularly assimilate information through books or if other media are beginning to take their place.

Online information is free, for the most part, which makes it harder to justify spending $15-$20 on a book. In addition, books take a long time to read and process; Wikipedia is a much shorter time commitment, even if the information is often sub-par.

Online audio files and podcasts make it easier for those with shorter attention spans to glean information from experts and talking heads without the commitment of interacting with a book. Fairly frequently I talk to young adults who listen to hours of religious podcasting each week, yet they have never read through the entire Bible. I don’t know if this is the norm or the exception, however.

So I’m wondering if those of you who read this blog can help me by thinking through the issue a bit (answer as few or as many of these questions as you like):

-What are the primary ways in which you learn and process new information (books, blogs, social media, podcasts, etc.)?

-If you do purchase and read books, how many do you buy each year (apart from the ones required for school)?

-What are the most common types of books you read (fiction, religion, self-help, academic, theology, etc.)?

-Do you think your peer group is more or less likely to learn from books than previous generations?

-Finally, how do you think churches and pastors can effectively communicate biblical truths in a technological age?

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How Theology Discussions Go Bad: The Excluded Middle

A conversation with a friend got me thinking about last week’s post on the subject of Rob Bell’s new book. Other writers and thinkers have professed universalism quite directly, but they have not generated nearly the level of discussion and angry debate produced by his short book trailer. But he merely dances around the topic without directly stating his position. Why all the fuss, then?

Another friend of mine, John Dyer, wrote an excellent post on the dangers of debate in a technological world. It’s too easy to quickly fire your thoughts into cyberspace when you are angry or agitated, and we often do so without knowing all of the facts. He’s correct that much of the emotion generated by this topic stems from technological factors.

However, there is another factor that somebody brought to my attention last week, and it bears mentioning here. It’s the concept of the “excluded middle” (thanks to Ben Stuart for loaning me this helpful term). What do I mean by the excluded middle?

Go back and carefully watch Bell’s trailer. Notice how he uses his words to set up a dichotomy for the viewer. He begins with an illustration — an anonymous individual posted a note on a picture that included a wonderful, compelling, and life-changing quote from Gandhi. The note simply said, “Reality check — he’s in hell!” “Really?” Bell asks. “Gandhi’s in hell? And somebody knows this for sure?” And then he transitions to his subject — will only a select few make it to heaven? How do you become one of them? Isn’t it troublesome that angry meanies (like those who disagree with Bell who also happen to post terrible notes on moving pieces of art) want to send billions and billions of people to hell?

What has just happened? He’s effectively cut off the middle of the discussion — those people who might genuinely believe in God’s lavish and undeserved love for sinners and in the doctrine of hell. You’re either the type of angry, hateful person who posts hell-notes on Gandhi’s masterpiece, or you’re with Bell in his position. There’s no room for middle ground — a person who loves people and wants them to know Jesus, yet believes in genuine eternal consequences for those who don’t believe. It’s an effective but unfair way of pursuing an argument.

And it draws out the other extreme very quickly — those who really are angry and spiteful are quick to respond with, well, anger and spite. And those in the middle are left with little or no voice in the discussion.

Lest you think I’m just looking for another chance to pick on Rob Bell, I’ll give you a couple of other examples. I’ve seen this occur in nearly all areas of theological and cultural debate. Either you support gay marriage or you’re a hateful bigot who spews epithets and encourages violence. Either you’re a 7-point Calvinist or a dangerous free-will Arminian. Either you’re a young-earth six-literal days Creationist or a wishy-washy liberal who denies biblical inerrancy. The false dichotomy allows us to dismiss as misguided or irrelevant everybody who does not line up on our team.

There are times to draw a line in the sand, and I’ve even done so on this blog. There is no doubt that certain truths are worth arguing about and even dying for. But there are times to acknowledge that often there are positions in the middle of the extremes. There is such a thing as a moderate Calvinist, an old-earth Christian, and yes, even a loving evangelical.

Theological discussions go bad when we refuse to listen and engage with those who disagree. They go bad when we confuse healthy disagreement with hatred — I can disagree with you and still wish you the best.

All that to say, don’t buy into the false dichotomies that exclude middle ground — engage deeply and passionately in theological discussions, but do so with love and respect for others that honors the image of God and the character of Jesus Christ.

Questions for you: Are there other ways in which you see discussions like this go awry? Are there good ways to avoid the sort of “excluded middle” dilemmas I’m talking about?

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How to Find a Church After College

Nearly every week I receive inquiries from college graduates seeking churches in their new home towns. Sometimes I’m able to recommend particular churches, especially for cities in my region. There are other times, however, when I am less familiar with a city and am unable to provide any good leads. For that reason I thought it would be a good idea to provide a list of general criteria to use when looking for a church.

The list below is not exhaustive. And there’s no such thing as a perfect church, so don’t look for absolute conformity to every item on the list. Instead, consider the church as a whole: are they a Christ-centered church, seeking to fulfill the Great Commission and teach the Word of God? If so, you’re on the right track.

Here’s my list:

Is the church centered on the Gospel? By this I mean, “Does this church preach and minister out of the sincere belief that Jesus truly died for sins and rose again to provide eternal life?” Many churches have the death and resurrection of Christ in their doctrinal statement, but they may or may not consistently preach it. Do they encourage their members to share the Gospel and to live in light of eternity?

Is the teaching and life of the church rooted in the Word of God? Do they hold not only to the inerrancy of Scripture but also to its authority to dictate the mission and practice of the church? Are the sermons primarily the pastor’s opinions on modern problems, or is every message grounded in the Bible? When decisions are made, are they approached from a biblical framework?

Do they hold the key doctrinal beliefs of traditional Christianity? By this I mean do they affirm truths like the deity of Christ, the Trinity, God’s grace in salvation, the inerrancy of Scripture, and Christ’s return to establish His kingdom? It’s a good idea to read the constitution and doctrinal statement of any church you join. If you are interested in Grace Bible Church’s doctrinal statement as a comparison, you can find it here:

Does the church emphasize the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20)? Do they encourage the congregation to actively participate in the discipleship of other Christians, or is all of the “real ministry” handled by the church professionals? Do they engage in evangelism locally and globally (through overseas missions)?

Are there opportunities for young people not only to sit but also to serve? Will you merely be filling another chair or significantly contributing to building up the body of Christ at that church? Do they have places for you to serve and eventually to lead as you grow in your faith?

Is the leadership wise and godly? Are the elders and pastors men of integrity (1 Tim 3:1-13)?  Do they run their families well or are they out of control (1 Tim 3:5)?  Attend a church meeting if possible.  What is your impression of the way in which decisions are made and communicated?  Does the congregation generally trust and respect the leadership?

Every church will be somewhat deficient in at least one of these areas, so look at the big picture.  Are they teaching sound doctrine or not?  Are they sharing their faith and making disciples?  Can you find a place to serve?  Once you have found a church that meets the basic requirements, become an active member.  Give yourself a time limit within which you will find a church and stick to that time frame.  Many students wander from church to church for several years looking for the perfect place to attend.  Unfortunately, their spiritual lives suffer greatly as a result.

Question for you: What are your thoughts on finding a church? Would you add any criteria to my list or take any away?

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