Church: The Forward Operating Base of God’s Kingdom

African Church. Image credit: Gardiner

Is church just a social club that meets on Sundays? Or is it more of what the US Army would call a Forward Operating Base (or FOB)? Let’s work through that idea today.

If you’re unfamiliar with the military concept, a FOB is a temporary stronghold in the theater of operations, forward of your main base, from which you can quickly deploy to fight the enemy. It’s a miniature version of your main base that strengthens your foothold in the area. It can be very basic or very elaborate. It is typically built up to resist attacks, but it’s main purpose is not simply defensive, but rather advancement: extending control into disputed areas. It provides a protected staging area to prepare you, the soldier, to defend friendly territory and go out into enemy territory. It’s also a place to return to for needed resupply, rest, training, and maybe medical attention if a mission doesn’t go so well. But ultimately, the mission is outside the wall and concertina wire of the FOB.

What is our main base? Heaven [Heb 11:13]. What is this world? Enemy-controlled territory [Eph 6:12]. What is our mission? To go make disciples [Mat 28:19-20, 9:36-38]. Are our churches to be little outposts of Heaven? Consider the following passages:

  • Paul explained to the Ephesian church that God established some as pastors and teachers for the equipping of God’s people, for them to grow in maturity and the knowledge of the Son of God… no longer blown around by every wind of false doctrine. [Eph 4:11-14] The whole purpose for a preacher getting up on Sunday morning in front of a congregation isn’t to help them feel good about themselves and give them warm fuzzy feelings. And attending shouldn’t be about checking an obligation off your list, trying to earn God’s approval (which is impossible). It’s about equipping you with the armor and weapons needed to survive the very real spiritual battles going on every day.
  • In describing the qualifications of church leaders to Titus, Paul said that an elder in the church must hold firmly to the trustworthy message he’d received, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. [Ti 1:9 NIV] You can’t hold firmly to what you don’t know. Your encouragement will ring hollow if you have no reason to back it up. And you certainly can’t refute an opponent if you don’t know what and why you believe as you do.
  • The pastor of the church should “preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” [2Tim 4:2 NIV] This is focused training with specific objectives. Take full advantage of this training “on-base” before you need it out in the fray. People don’t like correction and rebuking, but it’s better to sweat in training than to bleed on the battlefield.
  • Paul told Titus, whom he left in Crete to oversee the church there, to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” [Ti 2:1] Doctrine – simply what you believe, laid out formally – is immensely important. Being sincerely wrong won’t help you in physical or spiritual matters. How can you fight for the Kingdom of God if you don’t even know about the Kingdom?
  • Paul instructed Timothy, another young pastor, that “what you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching…” and again, “the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others [2Tim 1:13, 2:2 NIV]. Teaching in the church is a serious responsibility [Jam 3:1], and woe to those that lead people astray [Mat 18:6]. But it can’t just be on the pastor; it needs to be passed on.
  • Deacons “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” [1Tim 3:9 NIV] Don’t stay at a shallow level. Dig deep. Grow in your knowledge of God.
  • Paul urged Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching [1Tim 4:13 NIV]. A church needs to keep its priorities straight. If there’s very little Scripture in your services, that should be a red flag.
  • Paul said that he was writing the Colossian church so that no one would deceive them with fine-sounding rhetoric [Col 2:4]. There’s a lot of bad ideas out there disguised as clever memes and so forth. Learn the truth so you won’t fall for the lies.
  • The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were warned that they should’ve been teachers already, but they needed to be taught the basics again before they would even be able to chew on meatier topics. Those deeper truths were for the mature, who because of practice had their senses trained to discern good and evil [Heb 5:12-14]. If you think it’s only the pastor’s job or a Sunday school teacher’s job to teach Bible truth, think again. We should all be working toward that so that we can disciple others just we were discipled. There’s a lot of people in this world that would never step foot in a church that you may be able to help. And the words “disciple” and “discipline” aren’t similar by coincidence; a mature Christian doesn’t get that way without disciplined training, and prayer, and putting the Word into practice daily.

Do you get the impression that church shouldn’t be about simply getting together, but rather about being prepared to go out? The Bible tells Christians in almost every book of the New Testament that they will be hated, persecuted, mocked, tortured, and killed on account of bearing the name of Christ. Would you go out into a fierce battle without body armor and lots of ammo? Has any soldier ever lamented being too prepared, or bringing too much ammo? And yet, too many Christians go about their daily tasks without the shield of faith and the sword that is God’s Word [Eph 6:10-17]. A base doesn’t do any good if everybody stays huddled inside. It’s only in the soldiers going outside the walls that they can engage the enemy, take ground, and rescue people trapped by the enemy. Likewise, a church that isn’t training and equipping Christians to go outside the walls has really forgotten (or shirked) its mission. So choose this day whom you will serve, and mount up, Christian. There’s a world dying right outside our gates, and we need to be about the King’s mission.


Purpose. What is it, and does it matter? Dictionaries will define it as one’s objective, goal, intention, desired result, end, aim, or design. In fact, purpose and choice are the two pillars of design; when you design anything, you make certain choices to achieve a specified purpose. Purposes aren’t always apparent to bystanders. In my own branch of engineering, we assemble very detailed plans and instructions for fabricators and erectors so that a safe structure can be built correctly. Sometimes other trades ignore some aspect of our design because they couldn’t see the purpose in it and assumed it was a mistake. Of course, the safety of the public is always our ultimate purpose and is our first obligation in our code of ethics. But smaller purposes might include maximizing open space in an office building, maximizing resilience in a community tornado shelter, or minimizing cost or weight. But what about purpose in the “big picture” of life in general? Is there a purpose? Can we know it?

If there were a purpose for each of us in life, then not knowing it could certainly make for a frustrating life. Imagine trying to use a tool for a purpose it was never intended, like trying to make a screwdriver work as a hammer in an emergency, and you can see how a person trying to accomplish a purpose for which they are not intended might be frustrated. But how could they know their purpose? Is it just what their skills and attitudes point toward? Is my purpose just to be an engineer? That seems rather arbitrary. After all, people often change occupations throughout their life. Even when they stay in a field their entire career, they often retire at a certain point. Have they lost their purpose in life then? While some may feel that way at the time, I think not.

Does atheism offer any justification for purpose in life? Not really. Under atheism, there is no God to establish any kind of overarching purpose for humans. Under materialism, which typically goes along with atheism, there is nothing beyond the physical: you have no soul, you are simply a collection of atoms brought together by chance processes, only to disintegrate and return to the dust after a few decades on average. Maybe you live a hundred years or so, but death can come at any moment really.  If that’s all life is, why do we all seek purpose in our lives, and often despair without it? What ground is there for actually having purpose in an atheistic universe? I’ve heard atheists say people should be good “for goodness sake”, or for the “flourishing” of humankind. But that rings a bit hollow given atheism. We are insignificant blips in a thoughtless, uncaring universe if atheism is true. Why waste our short time here trying to better the world for present or future generations? Knowledge of your accomplishments beyond your lifetime is the closest thing to immortality that atheism can offer, so a person might find purpose in bringing glory to their name so that people hundreds of years from now would remember their deeds.  But even if you were one of the very small percentage of individuals in human history to be remembered for any length of time, it’s still all for naught, for it does you no good. You die all the same and become … nothing… if atheism is true. And call me cynical, but I’ve seen too many changes in command where someone with a different perspective specifically erases a predecessor’s accomplishments. So all my best efforts, whether done out of compassion or a desire for notoriety, can be rolled back by those who come after me.

Is there an alternative view that fills this seemingly universal desire for purpose in life? I think so. The Bible tells us that God made mankind in His image, or likeness. [Gen 1:26-27] This gives us all an intrinsic value regardless of our social status, intelligence, talents race, gender, or anything else. It also tells us that we were created for His glory. [Is 43:7] This is our purpose. Consequently, no matter what we do, we are to “do all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23] God did not have to create humans (or anything else). But He chose to create us, and He lovingly put us in a very hospitable spot in a very hostile universe. God alone is worthy of all glory, or honor, and glorifying Him is our joyful duty. Duty? Yes, it’s our very purpose in life – “the chief end of man” as the Westminster Catechism puts it – but joyful duty! As Jesus said, His burden is light. [Matt 11:28-30] For when you fulfill what you were created for, you can be content and at peace – yes, even joyful – in the good times and the bad.

Whether you are a world leader or starving in a North Korean prison camp, whether on top of the world on Wall Street or down in the deepest, darkest mine, whether you live another 100 years or die tomorrow, you can know that your enjoyment of life doesn’t have to be shackled to your ever-changing circumstances. You can have a deeply satisfying purpose that transcends occupation, culture, fads, and the like. Fulfilling that purpose of honoring God permeates and gives beautiful meaning to everything in life from epic deeds down to the most mundane tasks. And who wouldn’t want that?

The Design Analogy

The DNA Structure – Illustration by Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There is a theory, known as Intelligent Design (ID), that postulates that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[1] Many people reject this theory out of hand, and yet it just won’t go away. Why is ID so persistent? I would suggest it’s because analogy is so powerful. We tend to think analogically. We use analogies to work through difficult problems. When we have difficulty understanding a concept, a common first move is to try to find some way the new concept is analogous to something we already understand. Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Otherwise the 2 things being compared would be fully identical. But analogies help us to correlate known causes or effects with newly observed ones. Think back to when you had trouble understanding something new, and a friend or mentor who knew you well enough to know what kind of concepts you understood well, said “It’s like this…” and related it to something you were familiar with, and it suddenly clicked.

The problem for the atheist seeking a materialistic explanation for the universe and the existence of intelligent life is that we can’t seem to avoid analogies – comparisons – to design. Intelligent Design is such a persistent idea because so much of nature is analogous to human design. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe many things in nature without using design-centric terminology: we commonly speak of the “genetic code” and the “blueprints” of DNA; different “body plans” of the each species; the fine-tuning of the universe with its “clockwork precision”; cellular “pumps” and “motors”, and the “wiring” of our nervous system; and the “purpose” of different natural components. Even Richard Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” and speaks of our bodies as consisting of trillions of cells “organized with intricate architecture and precision engineering into a working machine….”[2]  In fact, the human body has been compared to a “system of systems” similar to a building’s structural skeleton, architectural skin and functionality, and mechanical ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems, except far more complex than anything any human has ever designed. The analogies between what we see in nature and the results of the human design process really do seem to flow rather readily, don’t they? Of course, the bacterial flagellum has become the poster-child for intelligent design, but why not? The analogy between it and an electric motor, both in function and even in individual parts really is uncanny. When searching for descriptions for natural processes and their results, all of these design-related terms keep rising to the surface as the most appropriate, fitting, terms to use. Why is that?

To answer why this whole debate between Intelligent Design and Naturalism even arises, let’s look at the what analogy really is. Peter Kreeft addresses this topic in his Socratic Logic textbook, where he makes several relevant points.

  • Analogies are often not meant as arguments to prove a case, but simply illustrations to better explain some part of it.
  • Arguments based on analogy do not prove anything with certainty, only varying degrees of probability.
  • Arguments from analogy are the most common kind of inductive argument and actually make up most of our daily inferences.
  • “Argument by analogy is an really an abbreviated form of induction and deduction together.”[3]

Now, I would say that ID isn’t simply attempting to make an illustration, but a proper argument, so let’s lay out some terms first. Induction is (typically) the process of drawing general conclusions based on observation of specific instances. The most basic form of induction is induction by simple enumeration. Think of statistics; you measure a certain part of a test population and induce some general conclusion from the sample you measured. The more you measure the more certain your conclusion. But generally, you cannot be certain except in the case that you measure every possible instance. Deduction is (typically) the process of reasoning that applies general principles to specific instances. Provided the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, a deductive argument will provide certainty.

Now analogy is said to be a combination of the two because when we draw an analogy, we are thinking of multiple past instances of something, inferring a general conclusion from that previous track record, recognizing (perhaps unconsciously) the common essence tying those past instances together, as well as that common essence in a new instance, and applying that general principle to the new instance. Analogies provide us a shortcut for that thought process. The more cases we’ve seen, the more similarities between those cases and the new one under investigation and the more relevant they are, and the fewer the dissimilarities between them,  the more certainty we can have that the analogy is sound.

So why won’t Intelligent Design go away? Perhaps because we can recognize an intelligent mind behind all of our human designs, can infer that a mind is what’s required to generate any design, can recognize the twin pillars of design – choice and purpose – in many natural objects and processes we observe, and can therefore reasonably apply that concept of design to them even if we haven’t figured out the identity of the Designer yet. Of course, ID is just a scientific theory, and stops short of identifying the Designer, but we can apply what we know about the necessary attributes of this mystery guest to arrive at an identity. The question for my skeptical friends is this: if the evidence points to nature being the result of design, and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ontologically necessary, free agent known as God in the Bible is the best fit for the source of that design, will you follow the evidence where it leads?

[1] “Intelligent Design”, New World Encyclopedia., accessed 2017-02-15.
[2] Both quotes are from Chapter 1 of Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp.329-31.

Betting It All Palmer

Previously, I highlighted another brilliant, famous scientist that was a Christian – Blaise Pascal. I also sketched out his Anthropological argument for the existence of God, which is the overarching theme of his unfinished apologetic work collected posthumously as “Pensées”. However, there is a famous part of this work that is more often associated with his name: Pascal’s Wager. It is unfortunate that his “wager” has taken so much focus from his overall case, but such is life. Let’s look at this wager and perhaps answer some objections to it.

While Pensée #418[1] develops it, #387 gives the essence in one sentence: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” You might say he is concerned with avoiding the ultimate buyer’s remorse: “What if I buy the spiel that God doesn’t exist, but then meet Him when I die?” Pascal’s development of this in #418 can be arranged in a table of 4 options, based on 2 objective possibilities, and 2 subjective responses to those possible realities, as illustrated below.

Objective Reality
God Exists God does
not exist
Our Subjective Response “I believe” Gain all,
Lose nothing
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing
“I do not
Gain nothing,
Lose all
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing

If God doesn’t exist, any gains or losses in our life are minimal, and approach insignificance, with either belief or unbelief. But if God exists  – that’s what makes it a high-stakes gamble. The gaining of eternal life, of unending communion with our loving Creator, is at stake! Gain that, and gain what really matters; reject that and all the riches or pleasures of the world can’t compensate for eternal separation from God.

That’s basically his wager, but is his wager valid? Are those really our choices? Let me get one objection out of the way first: this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather for the prudence of faith. Pascal is leaving aside the theoretical for the moment and getting very practical here to encourage the reader to look at what is prudent, or reasonable. Prudence isn’t a very common word anymore, but Thomas Aquinas defined it as “right reason applied to practice.”[2]Pascal is saying that belief is the wise choice not just in theory but in practice.

Now why is “betting on God” prudent? As he points out, we have to bet: those are, in fact, our only choices. God exists or He doesn’t – agnosticism is not on the table. Why? As Peter Kreeft says in his commentary on Pascal: “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[3] To try to avoid betting is simply to delay it and then bet by default, to lose by forfeiting the game.

But why bet on God rather than atheism? Much has been made of Pascal’s statements in the Wager that “Reason cannot decide this question [of God’s existence],” and “Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either [theism or atheism] wrong.” Is he negating all of apologetics here? After all, apologetics is being able to “give a reason for the hope that we have”[1 Pet 3:15], is it not? Keep in mind that the Wager is found in Pascal’s notes for his unfinished defense of Christianity. His whole Anthropological Argument is abductive reasoning. Pascal’s hypothetical seeker in his case asks, “is there really no way of seeing what the cards are?” Pascal’s response: “Yes. Scripture and the rest, etc.” These are all reasons. While it’s true that reason alone cannot prove God’s existence beyond our capacity to deny it, the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, as well as Pascal’s own Anthropological argument, stack the odds in favor of the existence of one and only one God – the God of the Bible. So why bet on God? General revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture) reasonably point us to Him. Far from a leap in the dark, Christianity “alone has reason” and “reason impels you to believe.”

Some would say that this idea of “betting on God” is a pragmatic or utilitarian religion, a selfish belief that must surely be repugnant to any good God. It’s true that God sees through any mask of belief, as well as condemns selfishness. But I think Peter Kreeft addresses this well when he responds, “To the objection that such ‘belief’ is not yet true faith, the reply is: Of course not, but it is a step on the road to it. Even if it is sheer fear of God’s justice in Hell, ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov1:7).”[4] I don’t think Pascal intended his audience (the sincere seeker) to simply stop at conceding that belief in God is prudent. He is rather driving the seeker inexorably onward to Christianity, with all that entails. The wager is simply removing one roadblock on the way there.

Lastly, Pascal reminds us at the end of his wager that it is not just a hope for some unknowable future: “I tell you that you will gain even in this life”. And again in Pensée #917,  “The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….” Christians get a small foretaste of this blessing even in this life.

A “prudent bet” may sound a bit paradoxical, but as Pascal would say, here, “there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain.”[5] So, are you in?

[1] Note: I am using Krailsheimer’s translation and numbering for the Pensées. You may read Brunschvicg’s edition for free at Project Gutenberg: The numbering there would be: #387 = #241, #418 = #233, and #917 = #540.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Question 47, Article 2. Aquinas is condensing Aristotle’s definition of Prudence from Nichomachean Ethics Book VI, Part 5: “Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods.” Aristotle’s word φρόνησις (phronesis) is typically translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom”.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 300.
[4] ibid., p.301.
[5] ibid., p.294.