Is This a Church Plant?

During my lunch, I got on Twitter to see the latest updates on all the people I follow—many of whom I really don’t know. At the top of the Twitter feed was the following tweet:

PastorMark Mark Driscoll

Planning @MarsHillOC campus launch. Need facility in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Tustin, or Orange. If your church needs a pastor let me know

Since the tweet appeared to be cut off, I went to Driscoll’s Facebook page to see if there was more information. The status update read as follows:

Planning Mars Hill Church | Orange County campus launch. Need a facility in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Tustin, or Orange. If your church needs a pastor let me know. Denominations are welcome for partnership too.

I haven’t dealt with the multi-site church issue on my blog up to this point, and I really don’t have time to address it in this post. For a good discussion of that issue, I would suggest that you pick up Franchising McChurch by Thomas White and John Mark Yeats. In a nutshell, I don’t believe that a church with a “video pastor” streamed in from some location in another city, state, or even country really meets the expectations for the New Testament concept of a local body of believers gathering together to be discipled and to disciple others under the leadership of their pastor. Anyway, that is another discussion for another day.

What I want to address is the third sentence in the tweet/status update. Driscoll states, “If your church needs a pastor let me know.” In essence it seems that Driscoll is calling out to any pastor-less churches in Orange County, California so that Mars Hill can come in and take leadership of the church and essentially make Driscoll their pastor. I would like to give Driscoll the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I really don’t know any other way to take that statement.

Driscoll is not alone in this approach to “church planting.” There are several churches across Texas and the rest of the US of which I am aware that are basically doing the same thing. Some have even expanded to international locations. All of this begs the question: Is this a church plant?

When Paul planted churches in the book of Acts, he physically planted himself in a town or city and shared the gospel with the locals. As the number of new Christians grew, they would gather together for teaching and discipleship on a regular basis (usually on the first day of the week to commemorate Christ’s resurrection, but often throughout the week as well). Paul would spend a few weeks to a couple of years in a place. At his departure (and perhaps before), another person would step in as the pastor of the church and shepherd them to life in godliness.

Of course, Paul did not have the technological capabilities to stream himself into these churches live each Sunday. However, Paul did not seem in the least bit concerned that the pastor of a church he planted may not have his gift of eloquence. He did not seem concerned that the pastor did not have his years of training in the law under Gamaliel. His concern was that the pastor “be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church” (1 Tim 3:2–7).

Church planting is not taking on the congregation of a pastor-less church in order to be piped in by video to be the non-resident preacher. Church planting is actually investing your life in the lives of people through personal relationships. Therefore, this is not church planting. At best, it might be considered church revitalization. However, a church without a pastor needs a pastor, not a video sermon. Paul didn’t send weekly letters to all his church plants to be read to the congregation. Pastors taught the people in person.

Before closing, I will give one defense of what I have seen as the typical practice of Mars Hill. It appears that they generally place a “campus pastor” at the location to give some type of leadership, but the teaching comes from Driscoll. This model is better than some of the multi-site movements, but it still lacks in faithfulness to the biblical model of the church. Raise up men to become the pastor/elder/teacher for the church. Support these churches financially. Let them flourish in their own context. This is the biblical model.

Is the Virigin Birth Important?

Last week the Huffington Post included an article on their website by Rita Nakashima Brock on “The Importance of Mary’s Virginity.” The timing was certainly critical as we are fully absorbed in the Christmas season. The message of the article is biting as Dr. Brock attempts to discredit the traditional teaching of the virgin birth as found in Matthew 1. However, she does not hope to do so in order to purge the virgin birth from Christianity. In fact, she states to the contrary:

“Actually, it is quite possible as a Christian to believe Jesus had a biological father and believe the story of the virgin conception says something important. It all depends on what you think ‘virgin’ means.”

For Dr. Brock, Mary’s virginity has nothing to do with biology; instead, she writes:

“I think the most significant meaning of Mary’s virginity is Christian resistance to the oppression of the Roman Empire.”

So the question remains, is the virgin birth (in the traditional sense) really all that important? Let me suggest a few passing misinterpretations and obvious oversights from Dr. Brock’s article, then I’ll hit the heart of the matter.

First, Dr. Brock approaches the issue of the virgin birth with an all-encompassing feminist theology. She describes the ancient pater familias where the father ruled over the family (and by extension, in her words, the emperor served as the “ruling father of the empire”), and claims that Mary was not the typical virgin under that type of system. By being different from that system through the apparent lack of a father’s influence, Brock believes:

“We might describe the story of Mary as a powerful rejection of patriarchal family systems and imperial powers that oppress everyone subject to them.”

Her theology is akin to liberationist theology in the concept that Mary is liberating the woman from oppressive patriarchal rule. In doing so, she is essentially deifying Mary as the Messiah/Anointed One/Christ/Deliverer for oppressed individuals. Wrong? Certainly. Heresy? No doubt?

Second, she totally misses the boat on Joseph. Brock states:

“Mary’s husband Joseph obviously serves her, not the other way around.”

However, according to Matthew’s account, Joseph was about to divorce Mary. In essence, he would have exercised his “patriarchal” duty by kicking her to the curb of ancient society—an unwed mother. Yes, Joseph serves her, but not in the way that Dr. Brock perceives. Joseph is not a subject serving a master—he is a righteous man lovingly protecting his betrothed wife from shame and embarrassment.

Third, she totally makes up the argument about Mary’s father not being involved. Brock notes:

“Mary was definitely not a virgin of this type — her father plays no part in her story. She is independent of a father’s rule, and by implication, of the father-in-chief, the emperor.”

Scripture tells nothing of Mary’s father. Silence in Scripture is not a license to make up stories and turn Mary into a 21st century independent feminist Messiah.

Here are a few things Brock got right. Roman emperors did demand to be worshiped as gods. It is debatable when exactly that started. It is reported that Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped and Augustus permitted it only outside Rome. Caligula demanded it. How did this play out in first century Judea? Who knows?!

She also gets right how the Catholic Church elevated Mary to the status of “Mother of God.” This is an unfortunate elevation in the history of the church because Mary herself is worshiped as a god in many Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The iconography of the Middle Ages deifying Mary is certainly heretical.

So what is the point of the virgin birth? It is more than just a story that resonates with feminist-liberation theology. The virgin birth is an essential element of Christian theology. It goes back to the doctrine of original sin.[1] If you hold to a natural headship view of original sin, then the sin nature is passed down to each subsequent generation by procreation (and directly related to the father’s role in said procreation). The only way to bypass a sinful nature in man is to bypass the natural procreative process and have conception take place by means of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if Jesus was merely another child born to Mary, albeit is seemingly conceived with the help of a visitor to a temple prostitute, then Jesus was not free of a sin nature.[2] If Jesus was not free from sin—for all people born with a sin nature sin (Rom 5:12)—then we do not have a perfect Savior who can atone for our sins. He is just a good guy who had some interesting things to say and died way too young.

Dr. Brock got it wrong—dead wrong. The literal virgin birth is absolutely essential to Christianity. Without it, we are most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19).

[1] For a discussion on the various views of original sin, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 648-56.

[2] Patterson describes it this way, “By the same token, the virgin conception of Jesus, the second Adam, is necessitated since if Jesus were born with a sinful nature, then He, too, would have been susceptible to sin. As the second Adam, with no sinful nature, He was able to confront temptation, triumph over the overtures of Satan, and remain a spotless, sinless sacrifice for Adam’s race.” Paige Patterson, “Total Depravity,” in Whosoever Will (edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 37-38.

Sharing in Ministry: Staying Connected to Your Home Church

Many seminary students have heard (and probably repeated) the jokes and comments based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:57 when he says, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” The jokes and comments usually follow along the lines of no one will respect you in your home church if you ever return to preach or minister because they will always remember you as that bratty little kid who tormented the nursery workers. They will never be able to look past that time you dumped soap in the baptistery or short-sheeted the youth minister’s bed at youth camp. Now if you did some of those things as a child, it might not be a bad idea to go ahead and own up to them and apologize. It might clear the air a little.

The reality, however, is that seminary students and ministers alike can reap great benefits from staying connected to their home churches or the church that influenced them greatly during their time of preparation for future ministry. It is an overlooked relationship that ought to be restored.

This past Sunday, I had the joy, privilege, and honor of preaching at my home church, Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova (Memphis), TN. As I told the congregation, it was a moment that I never dreamed would come. During the first 18 years of my life, I sat in the congregation listening to Adrian Rogers expound the Word of God faithfully week after week. The list of guest preachers to fill the pulpit for Dr. Rogers during those years was short and consisted of a who’s who list of Southern Baptist pulpiteers. The likes of Paige Patterson, John Phillips, Ken Whitten, and a few others were the only ones I ever heard pinch hit for Dr. Rogers. As unfitting as it may seem, my name now joins the list of those who have preached from that famed pulpit.

In recent years, the current pastor of Bellevue, Dr. Steve Gaines, has invested in a friendship with me that I did not deserve. I am sure that I am not the only former Bellevue member now in ministry somewhere else whom he has befriended. For that friendship, I am thankful. But more importantly, the connection back to the church where I first heard the gospel message is one that is more valuable than gold.

I am thankful for the investment of Bellevue Baptist Church in my life. They came alongside my parents and nurtured me spiritually. Although I believe it is the parents’ responsibility to lead their children spiritually, the church is an indispensable resource for equipping both parent and child.

In my limited experience as a seminary professor, I see that most students remain connected to their home churches for a brief time and then mostly lose touch. I don’t know if it is the fault of the student or the church, but I encourage both the student and the church to work at keeping the lines of communication open. As the years go by and that student graduates, I believe it is essential for the church to understand how their ministry has expanded beyond the boundaries of their visible ministry in the community. As I told the church Sunday, Bellevue has a ministry in Fort Worth at Southwestern Seminary because so much of what I teach is based on the theology and ministry I learned growing up there.

Certainly, the average minister will probably never have the opportunity to serve in his home church as a pastor. However, I believe staying connected to the church of one’s youth and reporting to them the extent of their ministry through you is a very biblical concept. At the conclusion of both his first and second missionary journeys, Paul returned to Antioch presumably to report to the church what had been accomplished (Acts 14:26-28; 18:22-23). This was the church where Paul spent his formative years after conversion and that recognized God had set him aside for ministry. Paul made a point to return to Antioch and inform the church how their ministry had expanded through Asia Minor and Europe.

For those of us serving in ministry beyond the immediate contexts of those churches that sent us out, we need to stay connected. Let the church know how they have increased their ministry through the ones they have sent out into the fields. This is healthy for the minister and healthy for the churches.