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  • Kevin D. Johnson 2:55 pm on March 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part V 

    This is the fifth part of a series against Bojidar Marinov’s articles against local church membership. The links to the previous series are below. In this section, we’re going to be looking at the synagogue and its relevance to the New Testament church.

    The origin of the synagogue in Old Testament Israel is somewhat clouded in the fog of history as far as modern scholarship is concerned. Many scholars today treat the synagogue as appearing after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile. The reason for this has more to do with the way modern scholarship works in treating only explicit or extant evidence from the Second Temple Period (530 BC to 70 AD) either available from history/archaelogy or in the biblical text. Modern scholarship wouldn’t typically treat the relationship of Leviticus 23:3 with passages like Acts 15:21 except in the isolated twin towers of Old and New Testament studies.

    For our purposes, we assume with Burtchaell that the synagogue in one form or another existed very early on in Israel’s settlement of the land, was put in place again after the Babylonian Exile, and was highly developed by Jesus’ day sufficient to offer itself as a paradigm for local church membership. Much of this post is going to borrow from Burtchaell’s book titled, From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Other good general sources to consult on synagogues remain Lee Levine’s The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

    Whatever your opinion as to the origin of the synagogue, the local New Testament church is clearly and originally based off the more developed first century synagogue that existed during the time of Apostles and later grew into its own. The word “synagogue” simply means an assembly and the Jews both nationally and locally called themselves an assembly in the Scriptures as we discussed to some degree in the last post.

    Synagogue comes from the Greek term synagoge and is represented by Hebrew terms in the Old Testament where the assembly or congregation is specified as the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 23:3-4; Proverbs 5:13-14; Nehemiah 7:66; Micah 2:5). Philo himself calls the origin of the synagogue the assembly of God’s people at Sinai (as quoted in Burtchaell, p. 209). As we discussed in the last post, the assembly of the congregation–in Greek synagoge or ekklesia–was seen in the Old Testament as the gathering of the called-out ones for a variety of national and local events or convocations. The list provided by Burtchaell is instructive (p. 209-210):

    1) Corporate military decisions (Judges 20:2; Judges 21:5, 8)
    2) Ratifying the covenant (Deuteronomy 4:10; Ezra 10:1)
    3) Acclaiming rulers (1 Chronicles 28:2; 2 Chronicles 10:3; 2 Chronicles 23:3)
    4) For hallowing/making holy (1 Chronicles 13:2-4; 1 Kings 18:24; 2 Chronicles 30:2-4)
    5) For receiving communications (Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Jeremiah 25)
    6) For bestowing official honors (1 Chronicles 29:20)
    7) For judgment, including capital crimes (Ezekiel 23:46; Numbers 15:32-36; Proverbs 5:14)

    The synagogue, however, was not just the national gathering of the Jewish people but also constituted the weekly local gathering for worship in cities/towns and villages. And, in fact, the presence of Jewish towns and villages had a hierarchical design often spoken of as “cities with their villages” (Joshua 15:32; Joshua 15:36; Numbers 21:25; 1 Chronicles 7:28-29). The Mishnah helps clarify that people in villages that were too small for synagogues would regularly go to the town associated with them in order to attend synagogue services and other important events (Burtchaell, p. 216).

    To be clear, the local synagogue during the first century was not merely an incidental part of Jewish life but served as the center of public life. The synagogue was the public seat of leadership, community, and regular worship for the Jewish people. The synagogue was where the elders resided and judged aberrant members of the community (including punishment of offenses), where the Scriptures were read and exposited on the Sabbath, where the Scriptures were presented to the people in their own languages, where children were instructed, where charity to the poor was dispensed, it remained the house of prayer for the local people, and where business and commerce even took place (cf. Levine, pp. 135-173). This is so much the case that the Romans themselves recognized the judicial character of the synagogue and had little problem allowing the Jews to manage their own affairs (Levine, p. 136).

    The primary difference between membership in a synagogue and membership in a church was that for most early Christians, membership was a matter of voluntary conversion to Christianity whereas membership in the synagogue was by birth and through circumcision. The grace of God was chiefly offered in a particular way to the Jewish people by birth and the advent of the New Covenant extended that grace to all people everywhere provided they repent and join the church in her worship of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

    Typically, very few Gentiles ever converted to Judaism because of the physical barrier of circumcision. The New Testament clearly identifies God-fearing Gentiles as friends of the synagogue that were believers in the God of Israel but not natively Jewish (Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26). These God-fearers too were called to a higher standard of local church membership in Christ’s church than they enjoyed in befriending the synagogues and that fact alone should register huge doubt as to the claim Bojidar makes that membership was unnecessary for local Christian churches.  For them, unlike Bojidar, becoming a Christian and joining the local church was a matter of rejoicing because it meant going from a mere friend of the faithful to a real member of the faithful (Acts 13:48).

    If you were part of a community and Jewish or Christian, you’d be part of the local synagogue or church respectively. This is so much the case that early Christian churches very much resembled Jewish synagogues and only very gradually moved to distinct entities as history progressed. All of the essential qualities of local synagogues were transferred in one way or another to Christian churches including local punitive discipline, the reading/study of the word, prayer, weekly worship, the exposition of the word, and the like. To say that local church membership was not required of Christians in this sort of social setting is simply to deny the reality of what it meant to be Jewish or Christian. In fact, this is so much the case that eventually the Christians were formally barred from membership in synagogues and suffered persecution due to their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah (John 9:34; John 16:2; Acts 13:44-52). If there was no such thing as local synagogual membership, how could one be put out of the synagogue or driven from the community? The same ability to be put out of the Christian church through excommunication was also a feature of first century local churches as 1 Corinthians 5 makes quite clear.

    Regardless, nowhere do we find the sort of independence from local churches and elders that Bojidar Marinov has maintained when we look at the every day synagogue life of Jewish towns, villages, and homes as they practiced it as outlined in the Scriptures and in the pages of history. Regular weekly Sabbath worship was a vital part of being Jewish and that transferred directly to the Christian world upon the advent of the New Covenant. The local institutional presence of the Lord’s people, her elders, the word, sacraments, prayer, and praise have been around for several millenia and to say that it doesn’t mark the fundamental identity of God’s people is to ignore vast sections of church history and what the Bible puts forward in both the Old and New Testaments.

    Before we examine the New Testament in more detail, the next installment of this series will review the early history of the church in terms of discipleship and baptism–what it meant to become a Christian in a local church even before the Middle Ages and the Reformation.

    [[ Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV ]]

  • Kevin D. Johnson 2:51 pm on March 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part IV 

    This is the fourth part of a series on local church membership written against Bojidar Marinov’s articles against the same. In Part I, we looked at how Bojidar Marinov’s perspective isn’t reflective of historical Reformed practice, Part II demonstrated that the life of Abraham is not an example for Lone Ranger Christians, and Part III demonstrated the same for Moses.

    In this series, however, Moses deserves at least two posts if only because his life and example isn’t the only relevant consideration when we look at the subject of church membership. The Bible itself is extremely honest about the lives of the saints and Moses is no exception. The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) does not seem to lift up the life of Moses as an unqualified and absolute example for Christians to imitate. Moses displays several faults from the murder of an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-14) to his lack of confidence that he could be God’s spokesman alone (Exodus 4). While the New Testament is clear to mark Moses as a man of faith, there is no evidence that his singular calling is a paradigmatic example for just anyone to follow as Marinov claims.

    However, Moses is important for other reasons. In addition to the life of Moses, this important biblical figure also provided the community of the faithful with what we know as the Mosaic Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. This is important for local church membership because it gives us a glimpse of how Moses would design a nation to function when it comes to things local membership in the community of God’s people. A person’s autobiographical account of a potentially troubled and lone example is one thing, but the pattern Moses sets up for the people in the establishment of the Old Covenant is quite another and certainly more important. The rabbis called this sort of argument moving from the lesser to the greater and it’s an important biblical paradigm Bojidar Marinov seems to miss. As if that wasn’t enough, the nature of the Mosaic Law is especially important here to reference because it constitutes not just the words of Moses, but the very word of God (Psalm 19:7; 2 Timothy 3:15-16).

    The caution registered in the first part of this series remains, however. We can’t simply interpret the Mosaic law one-to-one as if an ancient Israeli economy and nation could be transplanted here in the 21st century. Again, we’re not looking for ancient examples of modern Presbyterian churches in the Pentateuch. The nature of God’s revelation in the Bible is progressive and the moral principles of the Law are honored throughout the text of Scripture but often applied in very different ways. That means that we may see differences in implementation as far as how God’s people live in a local community due to the particular covenantal administration, but we will always see God’s people as members living in local community with one another and regularly calling upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26). In short, the Mosaic Law provides us with a moral paradigm for a nation and community of people that is later reflected in more detail in the New Testament.

    So, what does Moses tell us about local church membership? Leviticus 23:3 provides one of the clearest examples that God wanted his people resting and worshiping on the Sabbath in their local communities. The verse reads (NASB):

    ‘For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings.

    At first glance, this might seem to just say that the Lord appointed a Sabbath of worship in every family’s house in the community. However, the word for “dwellings” here more properly refers to the seat of leadership in a community (1 Samuel 20:18; Psalm 1:1; Psalm 107:32; Job 29:7) as much as it does the actual houses or dwellings of the people. In short, when a congregation or community is in view this refers to the place where the elders sat as leaders of the people and ones in authority (Psalm 107:32).

    More importantly, however, is the meaning of “holy convocation.” The holy convocation was a formal calling out or summons of the people of Israel and is used several times in Leviticus 23. The weekly Sabbath gathering of the solemn worship of the people of God is put on the same plain as the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, and Pentecost — all holy convocations and all holy and corporate gatherings of God’s people.  More than that, in Leviticus 23 the local weekly gathering of Old Testament saints for worship is put first and even before the Passover.  In Numbers 10, the word for convocation is used to summon the people of Israel together and constitutes a solemn remembrance of the deliverance God would provide in war and always provided to Israel (Numbers 10:2; Numbers 10:8-10). Matthew Henry summarizes Leviticus 23:3 this way:

    “If it lie within your reach, you shall sanctify it in a religious assembly: let as many as can come to the door of the tabernacle, and let others meet elsewhere for prayer, and praise, and the reading of the law…Whether you have opportunity of sanctifying it in a holy convocation or not, yet let it be the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings. Put a difference between that day and other days in your families. It is the sabbath of the Lord, the day on which he rested from the work of creation, and on which he has appointed us to rest; let it be observed in all your dwellings, even now that you dwell in tents.” Note, God’s sabbaths are to be religiously observed in every private house, by every family apart, as well as by many families together in holy convocations. (Matthew Henry, Commentary on Leviticus 23)

    Since the first example of public worship before God is a matter of calling out (Genesis 4:26), Abraham and Moses were called out as leaders of God’s covenant people, the Sabbath remains a holy calling out of weekly worship to God by his people, and the church exists as an assembly of called-out ones (the very meaning of ekklesia), the consistency of the biblical language is too strong to ignore. In fact, this very consistency is noted by James in Acts 15:21 where he says, “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

    Add to this the weekly practice of our Lord and his interpretation of what it meant to practice Leviticus 23:3 while he was here on earth (Luke 4:16) and it gets very difficult to go all Bojidar with the biblical text.  Local church membership and participation remains a requirement for Christians today and the Mosaic law reflected that reality from the earliest of times.  The next post will examine synagogue worship and its relevance to the New Testament church in light of both the Old and New Testaments.

    [[ Part I, Part II, Part III ]]

  • Kevin D. Johnson 1:36 pm on March 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part III 

    In this section, we continue to take a look at how Bojidar Marinov wrongly interprets the Scriptures in order to support his false idea that local church membership simply isn’t required and that Christians can function as Lone Rangers in doing gospel ministry quite without the need of local church membership. The next example to examine is that of Moses. Bojidar writes:

    We have Moses, who was similarly called out of his people, and spent 40 years of his life alone among unbelievers, and then another 40 years alone in the wilderness. It was there, alone, in the wilderness, that God called him for his mission.

    As before, there are not a lot of details to work with in terms of the life of Moses since the text is concerned to tell another story. We know some things, but not everything. Moses did spend his first years among the Egyptians in the royal court but even here he was not alone. As soon as Moses was found by the Egyptian princess, the mother of Moses becomes his nurse and was responsible for weaning him (Exodus 2:5-10). Given the dictates of Exodus 12 on teaching children (Exodus 12:24-27) and the direct role she played in putting him in the river in the first place, it’s highly unlikely that the mother of Moses never taught her son about what it meant to be a Hebrew.  After all, this is the story that begins with Hebrew midwives valiantly taking action against Pharaoh in saving the lives of young boys (Exodus 1:15-22).

    But further, if Moses was all alone in Egypt, how did he bother to develop any empathy for his kinsmen in killing the Egyptian? How did he even know about them? Moses grew up at the Egyptian court and the very next verses show that Moses is aware of his Hebrew kinsmen, calls them brethren, and then took action on their behalf (Exodus 2:11).  The New Testament adds more to the context and as a result it’s clear that Moses even here is already looking toward Christ and the reward of faith–choosing to be identified with his people rather than remain in Egypt (Hebrews 11:24-27).   It seems as if Mr. Marinov has been watching something like The Prince of Egypt rather than actually reading from the text of Scripture.

    Regardless, the story moves quickly.  The killing of an Egyptian forces Moses to flee and immediately the story introduces the careful reader to the priest of Midian. Interestingly enough, wherever Moses goes in the story of the Exodus he is already with and a part of his people. In truth, he is never really alone. Even Pharaoh’s daughter recognized him, not merely as a Hebrew boy but as one of the Hebrews’ children (Exodus 2:6). It’s missing these sorts of details that makes Bojidar’s gloss a huge misread of the text.

    Moses did not, as Bojidar says, spend 40 years in the wilderness alone. In fact, he worked with his priestly father-in-law Jethro tending his sheep, married one of his daughters, raised a family, and eventually met God at the Burning Bush. This period of time was the training ground for what would come next and the text is busy telling us that Moses was being a faithful father, a good shepherd, and member of the community God had put him in.

    As with other mysterious early figures in the Bible, we don’t know a lot about Jethro but we do know that Moses presents him in a very positive light as a priest of Midian.  Earlier, the Bible had already indicated that Moses dwelt with the Midian priest (Exodus 2:21) and it’s this very priest that guides Moses to set apart judges to lighten his duties as a leader of God’s people in Exodus 18. The passage makes quite clear that the Midian priest is a believer in God (Exodus 18:11), rejoices over the success of the withdrawal out of Egypt (Exodus 18:9), sacrifices to God for and with Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel (Exodus 18:12), and then advises Moses on how to properly organize judges for the nation (Exodus 18:13-24).  Are we really to believe that Jethro’s household was something other than a place where worship to the one God regularly took place or that Moses was somehow all alone in the wilderness?

    Even as the story of the Burning Bush begins, the text again emphasizes that Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, the priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1). For anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear (Revelation 2:29), this puts the story of Moses’ calling within the local ecclesiastical context he had at the time however imperfect it may have been. In other words, Moses wasn’t just called alone but was called as a part of the body of the faithful present there with him in the wilderness. This is solidified when we see Moses going to his priestly father-in-law later and confirming his ability to leave and lead for God (Exodus 4:18-20). As with any ministerial calling, the Scriptures dictate both an internal and external call. Moses was certainly singularly called by God for a particular mission but that calling was externally confirmed by the witness and presence of the Midian priest Jethro and the community he led.

    The more closely Exodus and the story of Moses is read, the less it looks like Moses was a Lone Ranger like Bojidar would have us believe. It’s important to realize that this is the story Moses wrote of himself (John 7:19) and in the Spirit he chose to emphasize a calling that was not, on the whole, singular but had local communities that worshiped the one God at every turn with him, supporting him, and confirming his action and work. Moses didn’t write Exodus with the sort of firebrand Lone Ranger activity Bojidar Marinov is famous for and we can’t view the citation of him as an example for Marinov’s case as anything other than special pleading.

    Again, the goal here is not to establish that we see New Covenant membership standards present in the life of Moses, but simply to show that Marinov’s conception of these things on the whole are inaccurate and do not really speak as strongly to the matter as some might suppose.

    But, like the famous Ginsu steak knives, there is more.  Even if we grant Bojidar’s wild claims about Moses as a Lone Ranger Prophet and say the example he provides is accurate, that doesn’t make his case.  The examples we are given in Scripture do not automatically apply simply because they exist.  The Apostle Paul quite clearly tells us that the examples of the Old Covenant were both good and bad and that sometimes they ought to serve as a warning for us (1 Corinthians 10:6-12).  This means that examples of Old Covenant behavior do not establish on their own what Bojidar makes of them.

    After all, there are other examples where Old Testament saints went rogue and acted on their own without institutional ecclesiastical support.  Yet, the Bible condemns them.  Korah rose up against Moses and was able to persuade some 250 other men to join with him and yet this was a rebellion that ended in a horrible death for them all (Numbers 16).  The chief claim of Korah was that the they didn’t need an institutional presence of God’s people because the Lord’s presence was with all of them (Numbers 16:3)!  That sounds awfully familiar to what Mr. Marinov is claiming and future posts will demonstrate just how fallacious his claim really is.

    In the next post, we’ll address even more concerning Moses that Bojidar hasn’t taken into account and then we’ll eventually turn to the New Testament.
    [[ Part I, Part II, Part IV ]]

  • Kevin D. Johnson 11:23 am on March 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part II 

    Bojidar Marinov does treat select passages of Scripture in his three-part attack on local church membership (I, II, III). However, his treatment of Scripture is notably one-sided, incomplete, and all things considered quite light when it comes to examining the relevant details of local church membership. This post will examine some of Marinov’s missteps as well as provide more in the way of a biblical approach to local church membership.

    The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us in Q/A 54 that the church at root is really everyone from beginning to end that has been called out for everlasting life. This means the church existed in one form or another from Adam until now in various forms and that overall Scripture speaks to its existence and importance in several places. In fact, in Genesis 4:26, we have the first instance where public corporate worship appears as a matter of practice among God’s people.

    Of course, the revelation of God’s Word is a progressive one for his people–the earliest cases of public worship and collective fidelity only tell a part of the story and more complete commentary on things like local church membership are going to become clearer as one advances through the pages of Scripture. The institution of the church in its local form changed over the years due first to God’s covenantal administrations and second to circumstance and providence.

    But, that fact alone doesn’t stop Bojidar from attempting to note lone characters in the Bible that don’t seem to have any level of affiliation with others like they might in a New Testament church. Marinov brings Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and even John the Baptist to provide testimony, all apparent examples of the sort of Lone Ranger Christianity he espouses.

    The problem, however, is that each of these figures really do not present the sort of absolute example Marinov would like once all the facts about their lives are out on the table. The question here, however, is not whether the lives of Abraham and others approximated 21st century church membership standards, but rather whether or not each figure participated in local expressions of God’s church and life and to what extent we can see that in the pages of Scripture. Marinov’s citation of each is notably incomplete as we shall see.

    Abraham was definitely called away from his home, but it was not “to wander alone all his life” as Marinov claims. The singular calling of Isaiah 51:2 only means that Abraham was singularly called by God as a covenantal head and patriarch of the new nation God called out for himself, the verse says nothing about wandering alone all his life or doing so alone. Sarah, too, had obligations as a part of this calling (1 Peter 3:6). Isaac and Jacob shared in Abraham’s calling and were invoked as heirs of the promise and identified as living with Abraham “in a foreign land, in tents” (Heb 11:8-9). Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that Abraham left his homeland to go to a land God promised so that he might become a great nation and blessing. But, Genesis 12 and following tells us more. Abraham, in fact, did not go alone. His nephew Lot comes with him in addition to his wife and all the members of his household.

    For Abraham, this was not just a nuclear family departing bravely from their homeland we’re talking about (as Bojidar’s language might imply) but rather an entire tribe of people moving to God’s promised land. In Genesis 14:14 we learn that just the male members born in his household numbered over 300 people–a number four times larger than most any congregation in America (75 is the national average, though sources vary in terms of the exact number).

    We aren’t offered a complete record of Abraham’s activities, but what we do know doesn’t exactly sound like the Lone Ranger approach Marinov prefers. In Bethel, Abraham made an altar to God and “called upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26; Genesis 12:8). Later, after Abraham returns from the famine and the episode in Egypt he sacrifices again in Bethel ‘calling upon the name of the LORD.’ (Genesis 13:4) Here public repeated worship remains a pattern for Abraham and his larger-than-a-local-church household and indeed marks his journeys.

    But, the language here echoes the same language about public corporate worship we find in Genesis 4:26. It would be absurd to think that Abraham himself was offering sacrifices without the clear involvement of his household and tribe especially when we see the author of Genesis (Moses!) utilizing the same language to describe the public worship of God’s people in both places.

    In fact, we see Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek in a very public way (Genesis 14:17-20), circumcising his entire household at the command of God (including his servants, Genesis 17:10-14; Genesis 17:23-27), offering three angels of the Lord hospitality after God appears to him at the door of his tent (Genesis 18), and finally tested at Moriah with his son Isaac and his sacrifice in Genesis 22. Even here, Abraham is not alone as he brings two servants with him in addition to his son.

    There simply is no evidence that Abraham was a Lone Ranger Bojidar Marinov Hebrew as he wandered in following God’s calling for his life. Clearly, the fuller evidence speaks otherwise.  Abraham consistently led his family, his servants, and anyone who traveled with him in the local, regular, public, and corporate worship of God’s people.  In essence, given that he had his household and servants circumcised, he went far above and beyond any modern requirement for membership in today’s churches!

    Less is known of Elijah than Abraham, but the Bible isn’t telling us a story about where Elijah went to church. The context is an entirely different narrative and so we can’t immediately assume one way or the other about what local worship habits he had. Marinov is simply arguing from silence to mention a figure like Elijah because the text isn’t speaking to the subject. However, even when we examine Elijah there are clues that he was never acting exclusively alone. Public communal worship to God alone is defended and maintained by Elijah (1 Kings 18), Elijah’s call to hide alone in the wilderness is temporary and when the word of the Lord comes Elijah is directed to action in the community (1 Kings 18:8-9), Elijah’s visit to the widow of Zarephath foreshadows the nature of the church’s ministry to the Gentiles (1 Kings 17:9-24; Luke 4:26), Elijah’s work is continued by Elisha (2 Kings 2:15), and when Elijah does want to be alone and in a cave God commands him to resume his prophetic duty in Israel among God’s people (1 Kings 19:16).

    We also know more generally that the prophets of the Old Testament weren’t acting alone. There was a company or school of prophets (1 Samuel 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:7; 2 Kings 4:38-44), they associated together–a hundred men at least–in community and doubtless functioned as a refuge from the general godless idolatry of the time.

    Again, the point here is not to read specific 21st century church membership requirements or polity expressions into the text of Scripture, but to note that the normal communal, public worship, and identity of God’s people in local assemblies is part and parcel of every age mentioned in Scripture and only looks different due to differences in the providential exercise of the particular covenantal administrations given to God’s people at the time. The next post will examine further biblical evidence, Moses, and John the Baptist in our continued look at this subject contra the claims of Bojidar Marinov.
    [[ Part I, Part III, Part IV ]]

  • Kevin D. Johnson 7:11 pm on March 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part I 

    Bojidar Marinov has written a series of posts against the idea of local church membership. His work in this regard is historically inaccurate, leaves out several details from the history of the church, largely ignores a plethora of biblical passages that ought to be considered when looking at the subject and just generally remains uninformed. The fact of the matter is that local church membership is part and parcel of what it means to be Christian, this has largely been recognized throughout the history of the church, the Reformers saw it as a must, and it is no less important today. That Mr. Marinov feels free to do things Lone Ranger-style does not mean he’s actually made his case and no amount of rambling TLDR posts will establish what he wants to argue from the pages of Scripture or the records of history.

    Bojidar begins by saying that mandatory local church membership is a Reformed Baptist peculiarity and that it didn’t appear until the late 17th century in the Second London Baptist Confession (1689). The problem with this historical claim on the part of Mr. Marinov is that it almost entirely ignores the earlier Westminster tradition that the London Baptists relied upon in their framing of their confession. The Westminster divines in addition to the Confession also produced The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (1645) and it reflects a mature Reformed viewpoint of local church membership that Marinov denies.

    This Form describes local congregations as gatherings of Christians meeting in one place for worship and further says that congregations should be formed ordinarily in reference to where people live. In other words, congregations should be local and Christians members of them for the purpose of mutual edification. Note that the Westminster divines called this arrangement lawful, ordinary, and expedient–meaning in short that this is the way things should be for Christians overall.

    The Form goes on to detail that Christ has instituted a government in his church of elders and that these ruling elders have the ability to administer church discipline (including excommunication). The fact that the Reformed Baptists argued similarly in their own confession only underscores the fundamental Reformed identity of local church membership and the legitimate church discipline and government each local body was to have in a plurality of elders.

    Bojidar later goes on to claim that multiple church buildings in the historical cities of the Reformation meant that there was no such thing as the local church. But, Marinov’s failure to provide any historical context here clouds the matter. Calvin’s Geneva was a city of some 20,000 people (not much larger than many megachurches today) and not a city like Houston by today’s standards (+- 3 million people). In reality, the whole city was a local church of sorts. When practical, the Reformers very much divided cities up and expected people to attend their local congregations just like the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government maintains for congregations that grow beyond the ability to be managed in one place. This is so much the case that Calvin’s Geneva fined households that did not attend on Sunday as they should. How really would that have been done except “decently and in order” through localized congregations divided as necessary by districts or parishes where people on any given Sunday were where they were expected to be?

    It does seem that Bojidar is arguing against a certain implementation of local church membership and polity and hasn’t accounted for the fact that differences remain historically between various groups even while a commitment to local church membership remained a reality. Calvin’s Geneva isn’t going to look exactly like 21st century local church membership, but to think there was no localized implementation and requirement of membership in Geneva during Calvin’s day is to seriously misread the history. Since Bojidar continues to argue against contemporary local church polity as it is today, every divergence historically from it remains for him yet another nail his hammer is designed to hit. The problem here is we don’t need all these nails and all his hammering is really just waving in the wind.

    Bojidar’s claim that local church membership was never required until only recently goes against the grain of what local church membership was and continues to be in Reformed churches. Overall, however, the real basis for church membership in Reformed churches comes from the text of Scripture and that’s where we’ll look in the next post.

    [[ Part II, Part III, Part IV ]]

  • Kevin D. Johnson 9:52 am on May 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    On the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text 

    LXXThe Dead Sea Scrolls don’t prove that some books of the Hebrew Bible were still being edited/supplemented/reduced well past the writing of the New Testament. That’s an assertion and an unproven one provided by modern scholarship. We know from New Testament textual criticism that just because a text is older or agrees with other manuscripts–that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the original readings. Ironically, what the Dead Sea Scrolls actually do overall is provide us with extreme confidence as to the nature of the Masoretic text and its reliability.

    The truth of the matter is that the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed very minor differences for the most part between the Masoretic text and some of the manuscripts provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Timothy Michael Law’s book on the Septuagint suffers from modern critical assumptions in approaching the text and his diagnosis is by no means certain.  Instead of Law’s book, I’d recommend getting your hands on the Jobes/Silva introduction to the Septuagint since it seems to avoid the sort of unnecessary speculation provided by Law in calling the Hebrew text of the Old Testament into question.

    However, if for the sake of argument we grant the highly speculative assumption made by Law and others that the Masoretic text is unreliable and that the Hebrew text continued to develop through the “Common Era” we have to be willing to admit that the situation is even worse–much worse–for the Septuagint.  This creates huge problems for those who want to retain dogmatic faith in the Septuagint as the “official” version of the Old Testament as we find in the Orthodox communions.  Wurthwein makes it quite clear that the Septuagint can’t really be used this way if we’re going to call the Masoretic text in doubt (66).

    Historically speaking, several versions of the Septuagint existed, revisions were made over its life even well after the New Testament was written, and this is so much more so given its history than what we could ever propose about the Hebrew Bible via the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d also have to admit that not all copies of the Septuagint contained the same material nor can we really say that any book in its varied collection was considered Scripture by the church except those actually a part of what we now call the Old Testament. Just take a look at the section on the Septuagint in Wurthwein’s work noted above and you’ll see what I mean.

    The Additions to Esther

    As for Esther, Jerome was quite clear in providing evidence to us that the Greek versions–what we typically refer to as the Additions to Esther–didn’t reconcile with the existing Hebrew versions in his day. That’s part of the reason why they’re thrown in doubt and not really received by Protestants or Jews as a legitimate part of the original Esther that we find in the Masoretic text. Furthermore, as Law notes, at least two of the additions appear to be Greek originals and likely didn’t have a Hebrew version underlying their origin.

    So, while the Septuagint was a useful tool of the early church to provide Greek readers of the Bible access to the Hebrew Old Testament in advancing Christianity, claiming more than that for it is extremely problematic.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 10:11 am on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    Church Covenants Are Reflective of the New Covenant 


    Historic Membership Vows

    I have to level at least some disagreement with this article by Wade Burleson on church covenants. I don’t see any reason to adopt one extreme in reaction to another–simply because some use church covenants to abuse others does not mean that they are inherently bad. A few things…

    1) Sig
    ning a church covenant does not automatically rule out the Spirit’s work or the influence of others in your life. Nor does it mean that the elders are the only authority in a church–think about it–a covenant is a voluntary engagement on the part of an individual or family to abide by legitimate authority (or at least it should be). That in and of itself should communicate that entering into an agreement means you have some level of power and protection as a member of the body. To assert that a covenant makes you powerless simply because you’ve given your permission in agreeing to it is groundless. What if the covenant contains proper hooks for the behavior and obligations of elders as well? Doesn’t this really depend on how a covenant is written?

    2) The assertion that a church covenant establishes a mediatorial role between God and the person signing is simply baseless. All Christians are priests of a sort and function in a healing or intermediary way–that fact doesn’t make the mediatorial role of Christ any less and simply recognizing legitimate authority in the church on the part of her ministers in writing doesn’t disturb that in the slightest.

    3) A church may believe that the church is equivalent to the kingdom of God but not all churches do nor do all church covenants contain such an equivocation. In fact, most church covenants I have read do not seem to confuse the matter.

    4) A church covenant is designed typically to help provide discipline for its members and to enable members to commit to the Christian way of life together. Abusive environments may use it to enforce authoritarian structures, but I venture to guess that most covenants are simply lining out what they think the Scriptures teach about elders, ecclesiastical authority, and faithfulness to the gospel in the life of a church. Are we really going to argue that there shouldn’t be any authority in churches and that such should never be reflected in any sort of written format? I think that’s a bit anarchic and extreme. Clearly, the Scriptures endorse some levels of authority in the churches.

    5) Matthew 5:37 does not forbid oaths or contracts (after all, no one I know has an issue with wedding vows!). Matthew 5:37 has a problem with disingenuous speech that invokes oaths when one isn’t certain they can keep the oath or may not really be interested in fulfilling their vow.

    Additionally, I also have to object to the notion that churches who disagree with Baptists about how to work out details between the church and the state are necessarily abusive. This contention by Wade is doubly ironic when he’s comparing 17th century Church of England proponents to Baptist elders in the 21st century. The matter is simply apples and oranges. Anglicans and Presbyterians who believe that the church should be involved with the state do so on principled grounds and not because they are engaging in ministerial abuse. It’s an inappropriate and anachronistic comparison.To me, however, the largest problem with Wade’s article is that it is very individualistic and seems to only speak to his rights or concern in the matter. But, the problem is that the church is a community of people united with a common purpose and creed. You can’t simply write off the fact that there are some basic things about being a Christian that one should follow.

    That said, I agree that some church covenants are bad and some elders in particular environments misuse them. But, again, in such a case it’s not really the covenant that is the problem but rather elders behaving badly. A lack of a covenant, too, won’t help with the real problem of elders that abuse the flock.  In fact, in some cases it may make the matter worse and harder to spot.

    When someone is baptized or joins a church via a profession of faith, they essentially are introduced into *the* New Covenant. That carries obligations as a disciple–and the covenants that people draw up today are emblematic of the reality of the matter in that regard. You simply can’t bypass the obligations of being a church member and Christian because you want to be free and independent. While I agree that the pendulum shouldn’t swing to overly authoritarian and abusive elders and covenants, we also can’t let it swing to the sort of anarchy and wackiness we have in place in many circles today where being a Christian is actually more like participating in moral therapeutic deism than it is obeying
    the commandments and following Jesus Christ with all that you are. These sorts of membership covenants are a reaction against that and in many cases, a legitimate reaction. Biblical wisdom is called for–not extremism.

    Last, we have to remember that church covenants aren’t new and they aren’t extreme.  Christians have been using membership vows in Reformed and other circles for hundreds of years.  They didn’t simply originate in reaction to today’s spiritual excesses on the part of the American church but reflect a long tradition of faithfulness among Christ’s disciples.

    • Melody 1:28 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      “A church covenant is designed typically to help provide discipline for its members and to enable members to commit to the Christian way of life together.”

      No comment.

    • Stephanie Wheaton 2:14 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      I totally agree with Wade, NO church member has any type of authority over another church member. I don’t care if he/she is a Sr. Pastor or Elder. Church Members owe their allegiance to Jesus Christ alone. Jesus paid it all, and all to him we owe.

      • Kevin D. Johnson 4:17 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

        I’m sorry, but that’s simply incorrect. Hebrews 13:7 and Hebrews 13:17 tell us to imitate and obey our leaders and there are other important passages that either explicitly say or imply the same.

        • John Hutchinson 4:28 am on July 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply

          Peithesthe in both Biblical and other Greek sources properly translates to have confidence not obey; hypeikete translates as yield, not submit. When I yield the right of way to oncoming traffic, I am not coming under their submission. Those of us who are scrupulous can no longer trust the English translations, where self-serving deceit have pervaded.

    • Scott Shaver 2:26 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      There is no “church” without the indewlling Holy Spirit.

      Do you actually think the Word of God and the Spirit of God indwelling believers will be subjected to or bound by man-made membership covenants consisting of more isogesis than exegesis? Laughable.

      Consequently, your disagreement (albeit well articulated) serves only to buttress both the logic and biblical basis of Burleson’s advice.

      • Kevin D. Johnson 4:25 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

        Who said churches exist without the Holy Spirit? And, how does putting something in writing nullify His presence? I mean, the Bible is in writing and even clearly admonishes us to obey and even imitate our leaders.

        Furthermore, no one has any problem with marriage licenses and the vows required for marriage–made to obey another in sickness and in health in front of God and all present. We also don’t refuse to issue marriage licenses simply because some might divorce or commit spousal abuse. Why is the marriage vow okay but a church membership covenant isn’t? Last time I checked, there were no explicit man-made vows for marriage contained in Scripture.

        I share with Burleson the notion that abusive church environments should not be tolerated and that people should be able to leave them freely irrespective of whatever membership covenant that they may have signed if warranted. Adultery on either side of a marriage covenant–so to speak–makes the contract null and void. But, the abuse of something doesn’t make it bad especially when we can point to churches that have used covenants or vows for centuries without these sorts of potential issues of abuse.

        Last, a membership covenant may actually work to keep elders accountable as they should be both to God and His people. Only a fool would think these covenants are always one-sided–both sides carry obligations and if they can’t permanently fulfill them then there’s no reason to continue them.

        • Scott Shaver 4:33 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

          The very nature of your response implies an ecclesiological template that requires “church elders” to interpret both scripture and the modus operandai of conduct for the covenant signers under the ruse of “church discipline”.

          It’s a rather weak attempting at reinterpreting the spirit and intent of the written Word.

          Burleson’s point about not signing such extra-biblical garbage remains highly valid IMO.

          • Scott Shaver 4:37 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

            Not to mention it promotes an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit being supplemented (if not supplanted entirely) by the rules, interpretations and documents of men……..I would assume some very young men at that.

            • Kevin D. Johnson 4:44 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink

              The Holy Spirit’s work isn’t supplemented (or supplanted) here. The Holy Spirit has been working through humanity and its institutions since the beginning and divinely guides the church as a whole. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit has directed us through our Lord and through Scripture (Matt. 23:3a; Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:17) to follow our leaders to the extent that they are biblical in faith and practice. Assisting people in that regard through covenants is simply good pastoral practice. And, even if you disagree, you still have to admit that large segments of the church of Jesus Christ very much disagree with you regardless as to what a small minority of abusive churches in the USA might be doing.

            • Kevin D. Johnson 4:47 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink

              I think it’s funny that a church covenant will be seen as an addition and a “supplement” to the work of the Holy Spirit…but, the Cooperative Program for the SBC–that’s God working personally from on high. Yeah. OK. Last time I checked, the Cooperative Program isn’t in the Scriptures any more than membership covenants are.

          • Kevin D. Johnson 4:39 pm on May 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply

            No, a church covenant does not require elders to interpret Scripture or conduct on their own prejudicial basis. You’ve assumed that of my view but hardly established it.

    • Greg Logan 12:16 am on May 31, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      I have not read either article – but I do appreciate the “counter-point” effort just to provide more light on a not unimportant subject.

      Regardless of any of the above, is there not at least some kind of “list” mentioned in Acts – around say Ch 7 for serving the widows. I am pulling this strictly out of memory – but it does indicate some formal recognition of involvement.

      Despite that, I personally find covenants anathema and have never and will never signed one unless, of course, Jesus tells me to…. (not necessarily impossible since I even ended up in a Pentecostal Fundamentalist church for some years…:-) ).

    • Karen 6:11 pm on June 3, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      I find no solid teachings requiring the assembly of Jesus Christ to sign a covenant or contract piece of paper binding the individual to a particular denomination. God’s Word is our final authority, not fallible man.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 10:13 am on April 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    Tendencies In Christian Exegetical Scholarship 

    I’m saddened, really, that an otherwise exceptional scholar will make statements like this:

    Conversely, while the New Testament emphatically declares that God is angry at human sin and that Jesus’ death saves us from God’s wrath, in passages such as John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5–6; 5:9; and Revelation 6:16–17, it does not link this with the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice.

    The chief cause of this is the tendency in Christian exegetical scholarship to unlink contexts as if something like Romans 5:9 could be said without reference to Galatians 3:13, Numbers 16, or a score of other passages. Parceling out the Scriptures in separate distinct units without reference to the entirety of Scripture’s commentary on the matter is a great postmodern way to deny the gospel–and that’s exactly what’s happening here.

    But, the main point of this article is equally wrong. Of course, sacrifice in the OT (e.g. 2 Sam 24:25) and on the cross is linked to appeasing God’s wrath. But, look at Goldingay’s statement above–it remains self-refuting. If Jesus’ death was a sacrifice and Jesus’ death saves us from God’s wrath, then the nature of the sacrifice was such that it saves us from God’s wrath just by the plain logic of the matter.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 2:48 pm on March 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    I Second the Motion 

    There are a lot of websites out there that deal in moving Christians from one communion to another.  We used to call that proselytizing but today many term it differently to avoid the negative connotation such a term undoubtedly retains.  Many times, this sort of activity is done with the guise that what’s really being offered is fresh dialog and conversation between differing Christian parties toward mutual understanding. But, these sites aren’t really interested in mutual understanding. Rather, they’re interested in making converts for their communion out of people who are already Christian.

    In that vein, one such site is called Orthodox Bridge where the author and several others purportedly want to offer “a better understanding of Orthodoxy” in order for people to make the move from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Of course, these sites follow a familiar pattern and Orthodox Bridge is no exception.  First, they are typically authored by folks who claim to have studied all sides of a debate and now have a better and more informed opinion than they did in the past.  Whether that’s actually true or not, we don’t really know since it seems that many of the former beliefs they carried and talk about don’t always seem to match up to confessional Reformed orthodoxy or even a fair assessment of evangelical religion.  Second, these sites also put up posts that put forward a Protestant, Reformed, or evangelical opinion and then proceed to knock it down with their own particular ecclesial point of view.  Then, all you ever find on the site are posts like this that continue ad infinitum  with the same strategy. Here’s the Protestant view on this issue, they say, now let’s look at the truth of Eastern Orthodoxy.  And, on it goes.

    What these sites and their lengthy posts often fail to do, however, is get anywhere beyond the sort of straw man that makes one opinion look horrible and its alternative–their version of the gospel truth of the matter–look strong and clean.  Yet, what are they really opposing?

    Realdialektik makes it quite clear–these critics are busy criticizing something but typically stay away from the best and the brightest representatives that the Protestant tradition provides for us with only a few exceptions.  In other words, these sort of sites aren’t really dealing so much with the classical Protestant tradition as they are the bogeyman of their own failed appropriation of it prior to making the jump across to Eastern Orthodoxy.  And, that’s what makes them dangerous.  Welcome to the plague of convertitis where your belief of whatever you knew before your “conversion” to XYZ group just doesn’t measure up to what you now consider the truth of the matter.

    So, I second Realdialektik’s challenge to the guys over at Orthodox Bridge.  Get your facts straight.  Deal with the best and brightest of Protestantism and quit cherry-picking your material just to make Orthodoxy look good.  If you do that, maybe then we can have a real conversation about the theology and history of the Church.  Until then, readers should know that the content they provide simply isn’t convincing to people who are aware of the fuller evangelical/Protestant commentary on the relevant issues.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 1:29 pm on March 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    The Failure of Richard Dawkins and His Book, The God Delusion 

    I continue my read of The God Delusion by Richad Dawkins.  His arguments continue to malign religion and don’t really deal in full with the various religious traditions he abruptly criticizes. His arguments are so poor that even fellow atheist philosophers now call him an amateur as the New York Times noted some time ago. Instead of laying this out in full for you on my part, I’ll link to a few posts where you can read more if you are interested. This first link is by Thomas Nagel, the next by Allen Orr, and finally one by Alvin Plantinga. The first two are atheists and the third, a Christian–all well respected in their fields of inquiry.

    Some choice quotes, first Nagel, then Orr, then Plantinga:

    In a previous chapter, Dawkins dismisses, with contemptuous flippancy the traditional a priori arguments for the existence of God offered by Aquinas and Anselm. I found these attempts at philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and ethics, particularly weak; Dawkins seems to have felt obliged to include them for the sake of completeness. But his real concern is with the argument from design, because there the conflict between religious belief and atheism takes the form of a scientific disagreement–a disagreement over the most plausible explanation of the observable evidence. He argues that contemporary science gives us decisive reason to reject the argument from design, and to regard the existence of God as overwhelmingly improbable.

    Orr writes:

    Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins’s work, I’m afraid that I’m among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

    Orr continues:

    The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

    Orr adds one more criticism in this section:

    The vacuum created by Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought must be filled by something, and in The God Delusion, it gets filled by extraneous quotation, letters from correspondents, and, most of all, anecdote after anecdote. Dawkins’s discussion of religion’s power to console, for example, is interrupted by the story of the Abbott of Ampleforth’s joy at learning of a friend’s impending death; speculation about why countries, such as the Netherlands, that allow euthanasia are so rare (presumably because of religious prejudice); a nurse who told Dawkins that believers fear death more than nonbelievers do; and the number of days of remission from Purgatory that Pope Pius X allowed cardinals and bishops (two hundred, and fifty, respectively). All this and more in four pages. Gone, it seems, is the Dawkins of The Selfish Gene, a writer who could lead readers through dauntingly difficult arguments and who used anecdotes to illustrate those arguments, not to substitute for them.

    Last, Orr sets hammer to nail:

    The most important example involves Dawkins’s discussion of philosophical arguments for the existence of God as opposed to his own argument against God, which he presents as the intellectual heart of his book. Considering arguments for God, Dawkins is careful to recite the many standard objections to them and writes that the traditional proofs are “vacuous,” “dubious,” “infantile,” and “perniciously misleading.” But turning to his own Ultimate Boeing 747 argument against God, Dawkins is suddenly uninterested in criticism and writes that his argument is “unanswerable.” So why, you might wonder, is a clever philosophical argument for God subject to withering criticism while one against God gets a free pass and is deemed devastating?

    The reason seems clear. The first argument leads to a conclusion Dawkins despises, while the second leads to one he loves. Dawkins, so far as I can tell, is unconcerned that the central argument of his book bears more than a passing resemblance to those clever philosophical proofs for the existence of God that he dismisses.

    To round this off, Plantinga offers the following in his conclusion:

    The real problem here, obviously, is Dawkins’ naturalism, his belief that there is no such person as God or anyone like God. That is because naturalism implies that evolution is unguided. So a broader conclusion is that one can’t rationally accept both naturalism and evolution; naturalism, therefore, is in conflict with a premier doctrine of contemporary science. People like Dawkins hold that there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism; the truth of the matter, however, is that the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and belief in God.

    The God Delusion is full of bluster and bombast, but it really doesn’t give even the slightest reason for thinking belief in God mistaken, let alone a “delusion.”

    The naturalism that Dawkins embraces, furthermore, in addition to its intrinsic unloveliness and its dispiriting conclusions about human beings and their place in the universe, is in deep self-referential trouble. There is no reason to believe it; and there is excellent reason to reject it.

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