P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

Subscribe to receive a weekly email when new blogs are posted.

Note: Please check your junk mail or spam folders for confirmation and weekly email updates.
Add our email address to your “Safe Senders List”. Hotmail or Outlook | Gmail

Straw Man Arguments

Some years ago, I attended a church service in which the speaker spent about half an hour refuting the “L” or TULIP, “Limited Atonement.” (In case you are unfamiliar with them, TULIP is an acronym which makes it easier to remember the five points of Calvinism. If you don’t know what they are, I encourage you to look it up.) Without going into any detail, what the speaker did was give a rather distorted version of what “Limited Atonement” is and then went on to say what it wasn’t biblical. I agreed with him that his version of Limited Atonement wasn’t biblical because what he had said Limited Atonement was is not what it is. He would have had a much more difficult time refuting Limited Atonement had he actually defined it correctly.

A few decades ago, several well-respected theologians in the Christian Reformed Church engaged in a conversation with some Roman Catholic theologians to talk about Lord’s Day 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the one that calls the Roman Catholic mass a “condemnable idolatry.” In their conversations, the Roman Catholics stated quite clearly that the way the Heidelberg Catechism describes the Roman Catholic mass is incorrect. The Roman Catholic theologians said that if what the catechism said was what the Roman Catholic Church taught, they too could agree that the mass is a condemnable idolatry. “But that is not what we believe or teach,” they said. As a result, the Christian Reformed Church, while not removing the suspect statements in the Catechism, did bracket them and place a footnote under them saying what they are incorrect and we should make ourselves aware that they have misrepresented Roman Catholic teaching.

What I have just described are two examples of a “straw man argument.” A “straw man argument” is one in which we distort or weaken another’s position so that we can argue against it. By misrepresenting someone else’s beliefs or teachings, we can easily refute them and quickly condemn them. Arguing against someone after first distorting their belief is called “attacking a straw man.”

It’s a fairly apt description. If we take a bunch of straw and pack it into Samuel’s clothing and we put Samuel’s face on our creation, we are building a straw man. We might name that straw man “Samuel,” and we might then proceed to attack it with bayonets, saying that we are “killing Samuel.” Of course, we aren’t killing Samuel, for the straw man is not Samuel. We are making ourselves look foolish if we continue to say that we are attacking Samuel.

When we do this is a debate situation, the same thing happens. Instead of accurately representing Samuel’s position, we create one that looks a lot like Samuel’s position but is missing some significant components. It is easy to attack Samuel’s position because it is not what Samuel said. The problem is this: while it is easy to see the difference between a straw man and the real Samuel, it is often harder to see that the argument presented is not Samuel’s but, rather, a misrepresentation of Samuel’s argument. We might be inclined to join in the attack against Samuel’s argument and so attack Samuel himself. Unless someone points out that what we are attacking is not Samuel’s argument but a fictitious misrepresentation, Samuel’s credibility will be destroyed.

Sometimes within the Christian church, we cannot be bothered to spend the time to develop a misrepresentation of another’s argument so that we can more easily refute them, so we simply use a short cut and label them as “liberal.” In many circles, that label is enough to destroy someone’s credibility immediately. In calling someone a “liberal” without having taken the time to hear what they have to say, we have created a straw man, and we feel that we can attack that individual without hesitation because, after all, we don’t want liberals to ruin the church. Naming someone as a liberal without ever really engaging them in conversation is the most egregious form of a straw man argument, at least in our circles.

As Christians who seek truth, we should recoil in horror at the very idea of setting up and attacking a straw man. Not only will we eventually look foolish, but we may even destroy the reputation and integrity of one of God’s children. That goes against the very core of who we are.

It is true that there will be people we disagree with and sometimes we disagree on very important points. However, before we write them off a “liberal,” the most egregious straw man argument or misrepresent them by distorting their argument, we must first listen carefully so that we understand. In fact, we have not listened well enough if we cannot accurately reproduce their argument. It is only then that we can give answer to what they believe, carefully using Scripture to guide us in our refutation of their argument. This whole process can be rather frightening, for we might find that when we truly understand someone’s position, we might find that we have to change our own. None of us does that easily. But, if we are going to be people of integrity and honesty, we cannot set up straw men and attack them so that we are never challenged in our beliefs. There is also the real possibility that when we engage people in their beliefs, and if their beliefs do not align with Scripture, we can bring them around. But that will only work if we have honest discussions and are willing to listen first.

It was difficult for me to listen to the speaker who attacked Limited Atonement by first misrepresenting it. As someone who holds to the five points of Calvinism, I wanted him to represent what I believe fairly so that I could hear his argument against it. Because he built a straw man first, I found that I could not engage him in conversation. I found myself frustrated and even a little angry because what I believe was misrepresented, and if I had announced that I believed in the doctrine of Limited Atonement, I would have been condemned as believing a non-biblical teaching.

The CRC was right in listening to the Roman Catholic theologians. And it is good that a few lines are bracketed and noted that they do not inaccurately describe someone else’s supposed position. While the CRC might not agree with the Roman Catholic position on other things, at least on this one, we are being honest.

Being honest does not weaken our position; it strengthens it. If we have integrity, we will be able to have good discussions with others, and, most likely, we will all become more aligned with the teachings of Scripture. If we set up straw men and attack them, we will never help those who we perceive are straying, and we will look foolish in the process.

~ Pastor Gary ~


The Expectation-Action Gap

A couple of years ago a friend was building a house, and before he started framing, he ordered his windows and doors because he was told that it would take about four months for them to arrive. The lag between demand and supply has increased significantly over the past few years, and what we normally could buy off the shelf or wait a few days to obtain it now takes weeks or even months. Thankfully, things are beginning to become “normal” again and we find that supply is not lagging as long behind demand as it used to.

We might call this delay a gap between expectations and actions. We have certain expectations (how long it takes to obtain windows for our house, how long we have to wait in line to get the hamburger we ordered, etc.), and if the length of time exceeds our expectation, we can become irritated. When another’s actions fail to meet our expectations, our frustration level grows. We may even lose faith in them.

In the Bible there is sometimes a gap between our expectations and God’s actions. One story that has puzzled me is the story of the Saul and David. In 1 Samuel 15 the prophet Samuel, tells Saul that God has rejected him as king. In the next chapter, Samuel anoints David to be the next king of Israel. What is puzzling and even a little troubling is that it takes another 20 years for Saul’s reign to end (he was 72 years old) and David’s to begin. If God had told Saul that he had rejected him as king, why did he let him reign for another 20 years? Our expectation is that when God says he is going to do something, he should do it, and he shouldn’t procrastinate.

Another example of God’s seemingly delayed activity could be seen in Psalm 13, a psalm of David. There David laments: “How long will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? . . . How long will my enemy triumph over me?” We don’t know when David writes this psalm, but it could well have been in those years between his anointing and his coronation, for it was during those years that Saul tried to kill him. Clearly David is frustrated by God’s seemingly slow action, for he feels that the oppression will never end. If God doesn’t act, the psalm continues, David feels that he might be killed. We can understand his frustration at God’s seeming inactivity.

The most obvious example of God’s seemingly slow action can be seen in the delayed return of Jesus. There is strong indication that the early church was also a little confused about Jesus’ return, for when he ascended into heaven, it did seem that his return would be imminent. True, during those early years the church grew rapidly, but so did its suffering. During times of severe persecution, it is not hard to believe that our brothers and sisters felt very much in tune with David’s sentiments in Psalm 13: “How long, Lord, will you forget us forever?” If the early church had known that this world would still be carrying on 2000 years later, they might have been quite surprised. There truly is a very large gap between their expectations and God’s actions. The gap is so large that today we scarcely give thought to Jesus’ return. It’s almost as if it won’t happen. (We know Jesus will return, but we don’t think about it that much.)

We may feel that gap between our expectations and God’s actions in our own lives. We pray for the salvation of a loved one, but it doesn’t happen as quickly as we might expect. We ask God for healing, but instead of being healed overnight, it takes years. We pray for God to open doors, but no doors open, and we remain feeling trapped in our current lives.

These gaps between our expectations and God’s action can leave us feeling frustrated, and we might even lose some faith in God. Our cry may also be, “How long, Lord, before you do something?” but God doesn’t seem to answer or even give us a reason.

It would be helpful to know the reason for the delay. When we order windows and the lead time doesn’t meet our expectations, we can usually discover why. Perhaps the supply of raw product (plastic for the injection molding machines) has been delayed, and we discover that they reason for the delay is that a ship has turned sideways in the Suez Canal (as happened a couple of years ago). Or we might learn that the plant that makes the windows we ordered had a fire and production had been paused for a couple of months as repairs were made. When we discover the reasons behind the delay, we might retain our trust and not become quite so frustrated.

God, however, does not always reveal to us the reasons he does not act immediately. We are never told why Saul reigned another 20 years before he was removed from the throne. We don’t know why Jesus hasn’t returned. We don’t know why God doesn’t heal us or turn a loved one back to himself. We can speculate, but we have to remember that any guess we have might be wrong. We cannot know.

In Psalm 13 David doesn’t receive any answers. He frets about his situation, and he cries out to God, but it does not seem as if there is any answer forthcoming. Yet, in verse 5, David says this, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” The word that is translated as “unfailing love” is often understood as “committed love” or “covenantal love.” What David trusts is that God’s love for him is not based on emotion or circumstance. God had made a commitment to David, and God would keep it. Of this David was absolutely sure. And that allows him to end the psalm with praise as he says that God has been good to him even though he hasn’t received what he asked for.

David doesn’t receive reprieve from his enemies. He doesn’t receive an explanation from God as to why there was a delay. He doesn’t even get a timeline, telling him when things would change for the better. But what he does have is the assurance that God loved him and would give him what he needed. How that would happen and when it would happen, he did not know. But God still loved him.

When God’s actions don’t meet our expectations, it is frustrating. But David instructs us by his example that in spite of what we experience and know, God’s love remains steadfast, and he will take care of things in his way and in his own time. Our response is simple: trust God that he will do what he will and leave it in his hands.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Philanthropy and Profitability

Some time ago I read an article in which philanthropic activity was considered to be the opposite of running a business. Philanthropy (literally the love of humanity) is often viewed as “giving money to good causes.” Philanthropy is much more than that, of course, for any action we take which helps others is included in the definition of the word. Nevertheless, most philanthropy involves giving money to help fellow human beings.

Many philanthropists were at one time successful in business. Quite often a philanthropist has sold his/her business for a very large sum of money, and they commit themselves to philanthropy (giving to good causes) for the rest of their lives. The perspective seems to be that when they were in business, their goal was to make a profit but after they sold their business, their goal was to give that profit away. I think it is often fair to say that running a successful business to make a profit and philanthropy (loving fellow human beings) are seen as incompatible. True, many successful business owners give a substantial amount of money to “good causes,” and we can be thankful for that, but it would seem that the business can only be successful if it focuses on profit rather than philanthropy. It would seem that the common perception is that philanthropy (the love of humanity) is possible because of good business practices, but good business practices don’t work well if they have philanthropy built into them.

One example of this separation of business and philanthropy could be found in a seed company which developed a seed with what was called a terminator gene. The terminator gene in a plant resulted in crops (e.g. soybeans) being unable to reproduce themselves. Thus, a farmer who saved some seed from one year to plant the next would be unable to do so, for the seeds he saved would not germinate. This may not have been a big deal for farmers in Canada, but for many subsistence farmers in poorer regions of the world, this was devastating. They are in the habit of saving seed from this year to plant next year, and the added cost of having to buy new seed each year would result in a net loss every year. The company which had developed this terminator gene spoke about its increased profits and bragged about how they were using those profits to help feed poor people, but their boasts seemed hollow. Providing help for farmers who had been impoverished by company policy hardly seems philanthropic.

Another example may be planned obsolescence in many of the products we buy. If we buy a fridge, for example, we can expect that it will run for 5-7 years without defect. When it does break down, we discover that the replacement parts are expensive, and we may even discover that they are unavailable to the consumer and must be installed only by a certified technician. Or, as we may have experienced, parts are glued into place (rather than held in place by screws) so that they cannot be replaced and the consumer must buy a new machine. These are deliberate ploys used by companies to increase sales and thus also profitability. The companies advertise their products in such a way to imply that the consumer will be satisfied with their purchase, but are doing so only to gain a greater market share. Sadly, while the company may be more profitable, humanity does not feel loved.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves. (Jesus could well have said that he expects us to be philanthropists, lovers of humanity.) It is a challenge to do so in our current climate, one that seems to be run by profit margins and return on investments. If the principles by which we make decisions are for our own profit and we assuage our guilt by giving to good causes, are we truly obeying Jesus’ weighty command? Are we being truly philanthropic? To be philanthropic is to obey the second of the two great commandments (loving our neighbours), and we must ask if we can do that in all areas of life.

I am not a businessperson, so I don’t know the challenges of making a business viable in today’s economy. Certainly, there must be a way for a business to run on the principle of philanthropy while still being profitable or else God would not call Christians to become businesspeople. Still, even while he issues that call, he does expect that those who heed that call do so against the background of the second great philanthropic command to love our neighbours as ourselves. (Loving our neighbour as ourselves means that we seek to ensure our neighbours have what we provide for ourselves.)

I am not a businessperson, but I am under the obligation to be philanthropic in all areas of my life. That means that my concern for others is at least as great as my concern for myself, and it means that I provide for others what I also provide for myself. That might not pencil out very well, but, of course, God’s accounting practices are not always ours. His don’t make sense on paper, or so we are told, because we have to look out for ourselves and our own viability and profitability first or else we cannot be philanthropic. Yet, we have to trust that when God says that he will look after us so that we can love others that somehow it will work out. To love our neighbours as ourselves means that everything we do is guided by philanthropy rather than profitability. We love our neighbours, and we leave the profit (that which benefits us) up to God. That must be true not only in business but in our personal lives as well for it seems to be one of the primary ways we respond to God’s grace to us.

~ Pastor Gary ~


God’s Accomplishments in Spite of Us

Some years ago, when taking a seminar on the biblical teaching about marriage, the teacher asked this question: Which couple in the Bible had the best marriage? He listed a couple of parameters: we read about them interacting as husband and wife as they planned together, and together they followed through on their plan. They were unified in what they believed and what they did. We thought for a while, and we posed a few answers: Abraham and Sarah were quickly ruled out because of Hagar. (Allowing a third party into the marriage doesn’t work that well.) Someone suggested Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. They seem to have had a good marriage, but we don’t really see them interacting as a couple. Others suggested Joseph and Mary, but, again, we don’t see them interacting as a couple.

When we had exhausted all possibilities, the teacher gave the answer: Ananias and Sapphira. We meet this couple in Acts 5 where we discover that they had agreed to sell a piece of property and donate the money to the work of the newly formed church. But, sadly, although they pretended to give all the money from that property to the work of the Lord, they had decided to keep a little back for themselves. For this sin of lying and cheating, both of them lost their lives. Yet, as marriages go, Annanias and Sapphira had a pretty good marriage in that they were united in both planning and carrying out the plan. They had a good marriage, but they did not have a good relationship with the Lord.

A few years later, after this teacher challenged me to reflect on this, in one of the churches I served we had a marriage enrichment weekend. The presenters spoke at the morning church service, basing their text on a passage from Song of Solomon in which they spoke of the beautiful relationship Solomon and his wife had. What was missing was mention that Solomon had over 700 wives and 300 concubines (women he slept with but to whom he was not married). On the way out of church, two people gave a one-line response to what they had heard that morning, “Which one?” They were rather cynical about the message that had been given, for Solomon does not seem to be the best example of someone who has a good marriage.

The point that the teacher of the marriage seminar who challenged us about biblical examples of good marriages (there are very few, if any), wanted us to think about the greatness of our God. Isn’t it amazing, he said, that throughout the 4000 years of post-flood biblical history, that the people were so sinful and yet God accomplished great things through them? It truly is amazing. I doubt that we would let Abraham or David, and certainly not Solomon become members of our church, but that didn’t stop God from advancing redemptive history anyway.

I am not advocating that we allow every kind of person, no matter how sinful, to be part of our church. There is no doubt that God has given us excellent and clear instruction about what marriage should look like: a lifelong commitment made before God and his people between a man and a woman. That is the biblical definition of marriage, and we are obligated to follow it, and if we don’t we are, in essence, ignoring God’s will. When people refuse to do as God commands, we must say something about their lifestyle, and, if they are unrepentant, we must they should not be members in good standing in any church. We must make it our goal to develop marriages that honour God, but we do so from biblical teaching, not biblical example, for there are few biblical examples of marriages that we would classify as being appropriate and proper.

The point of these paragraphs is not to criticize marriages of the Bible, and it is not to help us understand what good marriages are. Rather, the point is that we marvel at God’s ability to accomplish salvation history through sinful people.

Samson is another case in point. We can’t point to him as a good example for us all, for not only was his marriage rotten, but much of what he did was badly tainted by sin. Samson is the last of the judges (leaders of God’s people) in that book, and he the worst of them all. God didn’t have much to work with in Samson, but he still used him to bring relief from oppression through the defeat of the Philistines. God sometimes has to use pretty broken tools, but the amazing thing is that he can bring salvation through brokenness and in spite of brokenness.

Last week I wrote about competency, urging us to become competent, experienced Christians bur recognizing that when we are incompetent the Holy Spirit can still use us. This week the topic is somewhat the same but with a bit different perspective. Even if we are poor tools (pliers, duct tape, and WD40 are not the best tools with which we fix a car), God can still build his kingdom. And this should give us confidence in God.

We cannot doubt that there were good marriages in biblical times, marriages which we might want to emulate. We cannot doubt that there were good and faithful people who lived in joyful obedience to the Lord all the days of their lives. But the Bible does not put them forward as examples of how we should live so that God can build his kingdom through us. The Bible presents to us people who are sometimes grossly sinful but are still used by God.

Again, that does not give us the right to sin just so that we can see how powerful God is. But we can see how powerful God is when we consider what he has to work with. In Canada, at present, the church seems to be waning and there are many within the church who are unfaithful, but that should not make us think for a moment that God’s hands are tied. They aren’t, and he will continue to bring people to himself in spite of who we are and how we live rather than because of who we are and how we live. For that reason, we can continue with confidence, seeking to serve the Lord and live for him faithfully, all the while trusting that God’s will get done what needs doing. What he asks, of course, is that we be willing and not rebellious. Annanias and Sapphira wanted to appear willing but were rebellious. David appeared rebellious but was willing, and through him God accomplished great things, in spite of his sin.

~ Pastor Gary ~