Category Archives: Pastoral Reflections

The Zacchaeus Principle

“Do not store up treasures for yourself on the earth where moth and rust can destroy and where thieves can break in and steal it. Store up treasure for yourself in heaven where neither moth nor rust can destroy and where thieves can not break in and steal it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

(Matthew 6:19-21)

In speaking about treasure or wealth being stored up in heaven, it is often assumed that one must become like the rich young ruler and give away all he or she has to the poor and go into a life of humble and impoverished service. It is fair that some people are called to such a lifestyle. The rich young ruler is the prime example of this but also people like Joseph Scriven, John Wesley, and John Wycliffe come to mind. These people chose to live lives of poverty and service to build the kingdom of heaven and God chose to bless their labors.

But then there was also Zacchaeus — mentioned in Luke’s Gospel shortly after the account of the rich young ruler. Never does Jesus ask Zacchaeus to sell all he has and give it to the poor. Zacchaeus simply is asked to repay that which he has defrauded others. Why this difference? The difference is found once again in the account of the rich young ruler — that man loved his money and the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The heart of Zacchaeus is clearly in a different place.

The assumption that is often made is that when people speak of storing up treasure in heaven and of using wealth to build Christ’s kingdom and not a personal earthly kingdom, is that then one must give up all the wealth they have and donate it to various charities or missionaries. And friends, if that is what God is calling you to do, then praise the Lord and I would be happy to suggest some missional works that are worthy of your support. That we might call the rich young ruler model.

But might there be a Zacchaeus model as well? Indeed, there must be given that Jesus seems to do so. One might also note that there have been many people that God has blessed with worldly resources to the end that they might focus on building the kingdom with their very special gifts. John Calvin, for instance, it is often pointed out, had financial wealth at his disposal. He lived modestly and served not only as a pastor, teacher, and reformer, but also produced a wealth of theological resources for which the church is forever indebted. One could say the same thing of someone like John Owen whose collected works are still being read with a great deal of profit by pastors, teachers, and laymen in the church today. Arthur Pink, too, had the resources from his father’s estate, to retreat from public life and give himself entirely to writing. And like Owen and Calvin before him, the church of Jesus Christ is far richer because of those volumes. We might also think of people like Frederick III of Saxony, who used his wealth and influence to protect Martin Luther and thus begin the reformation in Germany. We can go on and on with examples of such, but I think we have enough to establish a Zacchaeus principle.

What does it mean to store up your treasure in heaven? It means to use the wealth and resources you are given to build, sustain, or promote the kingdom of God. If the wealth might go to our heart, we must get rid of it — it will bring sin and destruction. If it can remain outside of our hearts and as a tool that can be used for the glory of God, then we are to use our resources in such a way as to promote Christ’s kingdom. Indeed, in some cases that may be worked out in charity, but in other cases it may provide a platform through which service can be done or God’s people can be sheltered from the storms of persecution. Wealth only destroys us when it finds itself as an object of our love and affection — something that is cherished and held onto at the expense of doing ministry. There are both rich young rulers and Zacchaeus’ all around; if you watch their actions closely, discerning the difference is typically not that hard.

Saturday Word Study: The Fear of God (plus, the reason for and solution to America’s unrest)

We have a tendency to talk a great deal about the Fear of the Lord. It is the foundation of wisdom and knowledge and it is a way of life for the believer. We cannot even hope to claim to be part of God’s covenant if the fear of the Lord is not within us.

There is another phrase, though, that sometimes goes overlooked, but is no less significant. And that is the fear of God. In principle, the language is interchangeable, as the Lord is God, nevertheless, there are some interesting connotations that are connected to the language of “the fear of God.”

The Phrase itself shows up ten times in the Bible:

Genesis 20:11 — “And Abraham said, ‘Because I said, ‘truly there is no fear of God in this place they will slay me because of my wife.’’”

In context, Abraham has once again told a king that Sarah was his sister and not his wife. In ancient times, if you married a wealthy widow, her wealth became yours and Abraham feared that if king Abimelech knew that Sarah was his wife, Abimelech would kill Abraham for the wealth. Why does Abraham expect such lawlessness? It is because Abraham knows that where there is no fear of God in the land, there will be no fear of the law. The Apostle John says that sin is lawlessness. Abraham’s conclusion is that lawlessness is a result of not fearing God. A brief survey of the news in America and in the world seems to be a testimony to this great truth. Where there is no fear of God in our nation, there is nothing but lawlessness and chaos.

2 Samuel 23:1-4 — “Now these are the last words of David — an utterance of David, the son of Jesse, an utterance of the warrior was was raised on high and anointed by the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel: ‘The Spirit of Yahweh speaks by me; his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel says to me, the Rock of Israel speaks; he who rules over men, who rules righteously in the fear of God — as the light of the morning, the sun rises; on a cloudless morning it shines bright like rain on the grass of the earth.”

Verse 3 is the passage in question, but since the language of David is poetic at this point, it was fitting to set the context. In many ways, what is found here is the opposite of what we saw in the previous passage. When there is no fear of God there is lawlessness, but when those who rule do so in the fear of God, it is refreshing to the people, like bright sun in the morning or the sparkle of rain as it glistens on the freshly watered grass — such is the righteous rule of those who fear God. In light of these two passages, the question should be raised: “Why would we ever want the ungodly to lead us in the community or the nation?

Nehemiah 5:15 — “Yet the former governors which were before me weighed heavily upon the people and took from them bread and wine after the forty silver shekels — even from their servants. They domineered over the people. But I did not do so because I feared God.”

Nehemiah’s is a wonderful life to study and clearly he is a man of great integrity. But in Nehemiah’s own words, why is he a man of integrity? Why does he act justly and even benevolently with the people? It is because he feared God. How often our political leaders try and take credit for the good deeds that they do. Nehemiah does not think that way. From his perspective, what he does he does out of the fear of God — he knows that God has placed him in that position of authority and that he will be accountable to God for all the decisions he makes.

Romans 3:18 — “There is no fear of God in front of their eyes.”

This, of course, is cited from Psalm 36:1, which reads: Transgression utters to the wicked in the depth of his heart; there is no dread of God before his eyes.” What is interesting on a linguistic level is that in the Hebrew the term פשׁע (pasha) is employed rather than the ordinary word for fear, ירא (yara). Commonly פשׁע (pasha) is translated as “dread” and that in itself remains to be another word study. Nevertheless, as Paul understands the use of Psalm 36, the same idea is communicated. The natural man is a man who does not fear God but who is wicked utterly. Such a man is a man apart from the saving grace of God. 

2 Corinthians 7:1 — “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from the defilement of the flesh and spirit, striving for holiness in the fear of God.”

What is the promise that Paul is speaking of in this verse? It is the promise that God would take us to himself as his people. And thus, in light of that promise there is a commitment to strive to cleanse from being defiled (sanctification) in body and spirit (notice that the spiritual side of man has been corrupted by sin just as the physical side of man). More importantly, given our study, notice that true holiness is always paired with the fear of God — it is impossible to have one without the other.

Depending on the English translation you happen to use, there are other passages that speak of the fear of God. For instance, Job 4:6. In these cases, though, the phrase “fear of God” is either inferred (as in the aforementioned passage in Job) or the term “dread” us used (as in Psalm 36:1). Our goal has been to focus today on the explicit statement, “fear of God.”

The obvious conclusion that can be drawn from this can be found in the society around us. If you want to know why there is chaos in our nation and in the world, it is largely because there is no fear of God. When man does not fear God, he will not fear the law of man and sin will ensue. At this moment we are seeing this not only in Portland but also in many other parts of our nation. 

So, what is the solution for our nation? It is one one that will be brought about through civil laws and conventional human authorities. It is a gospel matter. 

We Need an Enemy…We Usually Choose the Wrong One

How else do you explain history? Even going back as far as Adam and Eve, they had an enemy in the serpent and chose to make God their enemy. Further, when confronted in their sin, Adam immediately turns on his wife and makes her his enemy rather than seeking to intercede and protect her. Look at how much of human history revolves around times of warfare. And when a common enemy is not found on the outside of a culture, how often those cultures descend into internal fighting and warfare. Even families do much the same. How often, after the death of a parent, siblings fall into internal fighting over who gets what. 

Unless you have been living in a cave of late, we are once again facing the question of racism and hatred in our nation. According to Wikipedia, racism can be defined thusly: 

“Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another.”

This plays itself out in many ways, and has over the years. It is the culprit behind the horrors that took place in Mississippi in 1964, it is the monstrosity that drove the Holocaust in Germany and founded the eugenics experiments in Appalachia in the earlier part of the 20th century — even the term “eugenics” breathes out the notion of racism, for if some genetic traits are good and desirable, that means that other traits are not and a hierarchy is formed. Regardless of your opinion of the validity of evolution, when such views are applied to humans, the end result is and must generally be a kind of racism, for if one group is further advanced on the evolutionary chain, that means other groups are not.

In God’s providence, I spent my seminary years in Mississippi. One one hand, I spent several nights a week, working with homeless men who stayed at Gateway Rescue Mission, downtown. On the other hand, I spent many of my Sunday mornings, preaching to rural Presbyterian congregations. In that context, I can say with integrity that I have preached to both Black Panthers and to Klansmen. Both were racist but both had the same need — the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During that time, I became close friends with an area pastor of a small black Missionary Baptist Church. He gave me the privilege of his pulpit one Sunday morning in the hopes of breaking stereotypes in his own congregation and it proved a very healthy experience for me as well (though it was overwhelming for my 2 year old son at the time). What struck me about my season in the deep south is that there were definitely pockets of racism present, but there were more people working hard to get beyond the racism that they grew up with as youth and who were trying to move on in the more integrated world in which they lived.

The principle, though, we see in other areas as well. As a pastor, I see much the same thing between churches and between denominations. Yes, there are some groups that pose as churches, but who are not, but even within the realm of what would be considered “orthodox” Christianity, this plays out all over. Funny, how much more work that the church could get done in our country if we were more willing to be co-belligerents with one another on critical issues — abortion being high on that list.

We see this also in people’s loyalties to their country. I am a child of the cold war. That means, growing up it was always the Soviets and the “Ruskies” that were the bad guys. As I write this today, I have spent 15 years traveling and teaching in a seminary in Ukraine and in that context, one of my closest friends grew up in Siberia. Go figure. We have both had fascinating (and sad) conversations about the propaganda that each of our governments fed us about the other. The fact that some of you were shocked when I said my friend grew up in Siberia (and considered it a beautiful place!), then that illustrates the fact that propaganda works both ways. Our history books were (and still are) full of it.

What am I saying? I am saying that we look for others to be our enemies. The sad thing (and the thing that leads to racism) is that we look in all the wrong places. Folks, let me say with clarity that from a Biblical perspective, there is one race. But let us not even constrain ourselves to the Bible. Scientifically, there is one race. The very fact that we can intermarry and have beautiful children whose DNA is a mixture of African, European, and Asian blood is a testimony to this truth. Given that we often pass along our best genetic traits to our children, maybe the truly “Aryan race” is that group of people who have a little bit of every ethnic group coursing through their veins. 

Don’t get me wrong, that does not mean that racism doesn’t exist. Anytime you look down on someone because of their ethnicity, you are guilty of racism…and that is wrong and it is sinful. It is also mislabeled. We are one race (and we better be about the work of learning to live together and grow together). We are just so desperate for an enemy, it seems to me that we look at the easiest direction.

Who or what ought to be our enemy, then? Sin should be our enemy. The Devil is our enemy. Injustice is an enemy we should hate because God hates it. Pride, a lying tongue, hands that murder the innocent (think how the riots are working out!), wicked plants of the heart, those who pursue evil ways, those who bear false witness, and those who sow discord amongst brothers. Those our our enemies, folks, not those who look different than we do or speak differently or whose cultural expressions do not match our own. 

“What Do You Have for My Children?”

As a pastor, that is a question I have often heard over the years. In most cases, what is being asked by parents is whether there are programs and opportunities at the church for their children to get involved. They want to know if there are youth groups, Sunday School classes, Vacation Bible Schools, and other things that are geared specifically to their kids. It is a fair question to ask and for the most part, activities such as youth groups or vacation Bible schools have their place (though I am very much in disagreement with “children’s church,” but I digress).

Coming out of seminary, I served a little congregation that had an older membership. They were wonderful Christian people, but they had made some unwise choices over the years and thus, for a season, my children were the only children in the church. That did change, though, over time. From there, I served a larger congregation with a full-time youth pastor. They had lots of kids in the life of the church and more programs for kids than could easily be counted.  My point is that I have seen both spectrums, from very few organized activities for children and youth to quite a few things. Now, as a church-planter, I am re-thinking a lot of things as we start a new congregation pretty much “from scratch.”

Now, don’t take what I am about to say as a condemnation of vacation Bible schools, youth activities, or Sunday School programs, but can we put down our defenses of these programs for a moment and just talk? Can we ask an even more basic question that ought to govern how we approach all that we do? Can we ask what children and youth need most in the life of the church? And can we do so in light of a reality? The reality is that for close to a generation, churches have bent over backwards to offer bigger and more vigorous youth programs. Families, in turn, often jump from church to church based on the activities that said church has (or does not have) for the youth. Vast amounts of the budget for many churches gets directed to youth activities and to tailoring music and worship services toward the youth. Yet, the youth in our society are drifting further and further from the church and from Christ. 

What is it that youth most need in the life of the church? They need to be discipled in the ways of the Christian, just like adults do. They need to be taught how to “give a reason for the hope they have,” just like adults do. They need to be engaged in destroying “every argument raised against the knowledge of God and to take every thought captive to obey Christ,” just like adults do. They need to learn to be “pillars and buttresses of the Truth,” just like adults do. They need to learn to love God with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love their neighbor as themself, just like adults do.

So, Groseclose, are you saying that children should be treated like adults? No, not at all. I’m not even saying that children do not learn differently than adults learn, because they do. So, what is the difference? Children learn a great deal from their parents. And thus, if parents attend closely to the Word of God and children observe their parents doing so in church and in life, then children will learn these things as they learn by imitating their parents. 

And folks, that is the most important thing that a church can offer children. Seeing their parents pay attention to the Word of God as it is read and preached, seeing their parents intentionally seeking to learn what the Bible says as part of a community of faith that takes the Bible seriously, seeing their parents study the Bible at home and share those studies with their family and in application, these are the things that children most need in a church. 

So, should children start ditching all of their youth programs? No; insofar as the youth program encourages and supplements the children’s participation in worship, they are great. If these programs take children away from the gathered body (yes, my objection to “children’s church”), then they ought to be jettisoned. Children need to see their parents engaged in the worship of God’s people from an early age. Children need to learn from their parents how to look up a passage in the Bible, sing along with a group of people in worship, and follow a preacher’s sermons from their earliest years. Generations were raised in such a matter and those generations tended to make faith a much higher priority than does the generation that has grown up on youth programs of every flavor.

So, how do I answer the question above today? In politely and cheerfully say, “We offer a context where their faith and growth in faith will be taken seriously and where they can see you (as mom or dad) seriously engaged in the same. Is there anything more valuable?”

Hourly Wages

At this stage in my life, I have pretty much worked under just about every form of remuneration that is out there. As with many, I began work collecting an hourly wage. As a manager for Domino’s Pizza, I was paid salary plus commission, where my salary was modest, but I was able to earn an additional commission based on the profitability of the store I operated. When I was a mechanic’s apprentice, I was paid by “flat-rate,” which meant every job was assigned to it an “hourly value” and thus, if I was efficient, I could be paid for 60 hours of work in a 40 hour week. Then again, I had to be present for those 40 hours whether there was work or not. When I installed carpet, I was paid piece-rate, which meant that I was paid for every square yard of carpet I installed, no matter how much time it took, and, when the work was done, I went home. Then, as a teacher and a pastor, I have been paid a salary. About the only way I have not been paid has been on straight-commission. 

The reality is that most of us don’t have a choice in how we get paid. If we want to go to work for so-in-so company, we will accept whatever arrangement of payment that they offer. At the same time, I must be forthright that the way I have most preferred to be paid has been via piece-rate. In this model, you get paid for what you produce, so there is a clear correlation between the paycheck and the work you have done. Also, if you happen to have extra expenses or financial needs, you can simply do more work (assuming that it is available) to earn the extra pay. It is the closest thing you will get to being self-employed…and in fact, for much of the time I spent being paid piece-rate, I was self-employed. 

My least favorite forms of payment have either been salary or hourly wages. The benefit, of course, with salary is that you always know what your paycheck will be — week in and week out — and thus, it is easy to budget. The drawback is that your time is never truly your own and you never really have the opportunity to make extra money by working more hours (unless you go to work for someone else!). It is assumed that busy weeks and slow weeks will balance themselves out and thus there is no “over-time” for busy weeks and there are no lean weeks.

My problem with hourly wages is that it causes me to watch the clock. I recognize that this is my own weakness, but I have known many who have shared similar experiences. Yes, you do get paid over-time for additional work done and thus there are avenues to make more money when you need it in the family budget (assuming there is work to justify it), but when it is slow, especially, my attention is regularly drawn to wondering, “what time is it?” or “how much longer before I can go home.” And, frankly, I don’t like thinking like that. We should thrive in the work we do and we should view it as a God-given task by which we are commissioned to build Christ’s Kingdom. And, it’s on this aspect of the hourly wage that I want to build my analogy.

It is my fear that too many Christians have become “clock-watchers,” just biding their time until Jesus comes again. If you have spent any time reading these missives, you know that one of my complaints about the “pop-theology” of our culture is that people have a defeatist attitude and assume that the only thing that will right the wrongs of this world is the return of Jesus and the best we can hope to do is to hold onto our faith and survive until that day. People are essentially “watching the clock,” waiting for Jesus’ return, so they can go home and be done the work that makes them miserable. 

Yet, Jesus says that we are to “engage in business until I come” (Luke 19:13). The King James, more famously, translates this phrase as “occupy until I come,” emphasizing the Dominion Mandate that is continued in the Great Commission. In fact, repeatedly in Jesus’ parables, the faithful servant is described as working to build the Kingdom while the lazy and wicked servant is simply biding his time. The thing is, we are not supposed to just watch the clock or bide our time; we are called to work, to do business, to take dominion of the world by making disciples of the nations. 

One of the devastating effects of the Evangelical sub-culture which has retreated from society is that the world is not being subdued and the strongholds of hell are growing rather than being torn down. Every thought is not being taken captive and the fools, who reject the knowledge of God, are rising to power. It is not our job to simply “survive with our faith in tact” until Jesus comes again to defeat his enemies, it is our job to destroy those strongholds with the weapons of our warfare (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Do we not believe that we will be given victory in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)? Do we not believe that our faith is the victory that has overcome the world (1 John 5:4)? Do we not believe that Jesus has disarmed the rulers and powers of this world so we may triumph over them in faith (Colossians 2:15)?

Where is the triumphant faith that turned the world upside down in the first centuries AD? Where is the bold and victorious faith that reshaped the mind and worship of Europe and then the world during the Reformation? Yes, it remains present in segments, but so much of the church has fallen into the trap of seeking an hourly wage and nothing more. Instead of living bold and triumphant, transforming the culture, too much of the church is subsistence-living, seeking entertainment that dulls the senses of one’s faith. How long will the Lord allow his church to sleep and what will he say to her when he stands in judgment and she returns but one “talent” of faith that she has kept hidden underground?

What Do I Look For in a Church?

That tends to be the question that we ask, isn’t it? This question drives the person who is “church shopping,” but it also drives the person who has chosen to remain in a church despite disagreements with the pastor or with the church’s leadership. Many surveys and polls that I have seen suggest that the main reason people stay in a church is because of friendships there. If such is the case, then that indicates what a person is looking for in a church — a place where friendships hold a person fast. The same could be said about family in the church or about having attended the church since childhood (or for generations) and the same could be said about influence — often people look for a church where their voice will be heard…and listened to.

Now, mind you, none of these things are necessarily bad to have in a church that you attend. It is a wonderful thing when children go to church with their parents and grandparents, when people have friendships in a church, or when they feel as if they have a voice in the life of the church. Indeed, these are all good things that makes being part of the church more pleasurable and meaningful. Yet, these are secondary reasons.

What is the primary thing that one ought to look for in a church? It is Biblical fidelity. Here’s the thing folks, if the life and practice of the church is not first and foremost aligned with the Word of God, of what will it avail you? If the life of the church is geared toward pleasing anyone other than God, then it will avail you nothing…in fact, it will lead you into a form of man-centered idolatry. Yes, you may have friends there. But being part of a church of friends will avail you nothing before the judgment seat of Christ. Yes, you may have family there, but family will avail you nothing before Christ’s judgment seat. And indeed, you may have the ear of the church leadership, but that will only mean you will be doubly accountable before Christ on judgment day.

Biblical fidelity is everything in the life of a church. It must do what is commanded by the Scriptures, it must believe what the Scriptures teach, it must love what God shows us he loves in the Scriptures, and it must hate that which God hates as is related in the Scriptures. And where there is disagreement and uncertainty as to how to apply a passage of Scripture to a new situation or setting, it must look back to the Creeds and Confessions of the church to understand how Biblically faithful people have understood and practiced the principles through the ages. 

Seeking a Biblically faithful church may force you to leave behind friends. But you can still remain friendly outside of church. Seeking a Biblically faithful church may cause you to leave behind family, but family will remain family outside of church. Seeking a Biblically faithful church may mean that the leadership does not give you the ear that you are used to, but if they are being Biblically faithful, that suggests that the ideas you are trying to bring to the table ought not be brought. And so it places us in the position that we need to conform to the faithful practice of the Scriptures, not try and draw a Biblically faithful church away from their Scriptural moorings. In reality, leaving behind a church of family and friends for a Biblically faithful church costs you nothing — maybe it will cost a little bit of pride — but it will cost you nothing in the eternal sense and gain you everything.

Does that mean you can’t go to heaven unless you attend a Biblically faithful church? Not really. I expect that many will be in glory in spite of the errors and man-centered ways that their churches have embraced. In fact, I relish the notion that such will be the case as none of us get things completely right. But the question shouldn’t be, “will I go to heaven if I stay in this church?” The question should be, “will my spiritual life thrive in this church?” And, if you are not in a Biblically faithful church, your spiritual life will not thrive as it could. And isn’t a thriving spiritual life what we all should most desire as we live out our faith in this world? Something to think about…

Rights and Privileges

In America, it is not an uncommon thing to hear discussions about rights and privileges. As a young man, I remember my father instructing me that I ought always to honor those who have sacrificed to protect the rights I had because even those rights that we believe to be unalienable can be lost if wicked people come into power. I also remember him instructing me that it was my duty to live in such a way so as to not squander the privileges that those rights afforded me — and further to never confuse the two.

In America, we go as far as to distinguish between those rights that are moral and those which are legal. Moral rights are considered “unalienable” as they cannot be lost, sacrificed, or even willfully forsaken except in certain extreme cases. This is famously summarized in the Declaration of Independence which states that we have been endowed by our creator with the right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” All of this is founded in the principle that we are made in God’s image and such rights properly belong to image bearers. Legal rights are fleshed out what we call our “Bill of Rights” found in the first ten amendments to the Constitution — principles like freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, freedom to worship as we so choose, freedom to own and bear arms, the right to a speedy trial made up of a jury of our peers, etc…

Privileges, then, are those things that flow out of our rights. I have the privilege of driving an automobile as it enables me to pursue and exercise my rights. Yet, privileges can be lost if we abuse said things. And examples of said privileges (as well as rights) can fill pages and books, and that is not my purpose here.

My purpose is to challenge you to think of rights and privileges outside of the American Constitutional and legal context. That is important, but most of us are well versed in these matters. Some of you reading this may be better versed in them than me. What concerns me is that while most Americans are quick to talk about their rights as citizens of America, they are want to talk about their rights as citizens of heaven in the church. In fact, what should be said is that most professing Christians are completely oblivious to their rights and privileges as citizens of heaven as if said rights had no bearing on the way they live their lives. 

What are said rights and privileges? The most fundamental right that citizens of Heaven have is that of access to the church. Just as an American citizen has the right to flee to an American embassy when he is traveling through a foreign land, so too does the Christian have the right to flee to the church in this foreign lands where we live and travel. How people take access to the church for granted. How people treat the church as a social organization rather than as the living and breathing assembly of the people of God. How people see church as a comfortable and welcoming place that demands nothing rather than as the schoolroom of Christ which instructs us how to live. And how rarely, when people travel, do they seek out a Biblical church to which they can flee for worship on Sunday mornings — let alone, on Sunday evenings. Membership may be a privilege granted to those willfully covenanting together, but access to the church is our right.

Yet, let us not stop there. For as Christians, we also have the right to be instructed in the things of God by the church. Indeed, this does not mean that we do not have the responsibility to read and study on our own, but what a remarkable gift it is that God has given us a place wherein we can be taught the Word of God and how to think rightly about it. I fear that instruction in our land has been so undervalued that many Christians would not recognize it if they actually experienced it — they would simply see it as teaching that was over their heads and too high to understand. What is worse, as many no longer value such instruction, even many seminaries downplay its importance. Why train men to teach the deep truths of God’s Word if their future congregations are more interested in practical advice from the pulpit and services that entertain rather than instruct?

Yet, instruction is our God-given right and we ought to demand it. Can you imagine what it would look like if people took to the street and rioted because the church was not instructing them in the Word of God well enough? Can you imagine what it would look like if there was a group like the National Rifle Association that was dedicated to the defense of the right of Biblical and Theological instruction? Can you imagine the character of our community if every church was a seminary unto itself and every member was actively committed as a student in the classroom of Christ? 

And, note well, Christian instruction must not be limited to children and those preparing for confirmation into church membership. It is a fundamental right that the Christian has. You don’t lose unalienable rights once you get to a certain age and you do not cease to pursue and protect those rights when you get to a certain level in your life. No, as we grow older and more mature, those rights become more dear to us and the exercise thereof becomes more consequential. How it should be with citizens of Heaven as well. The more we learn, the more we should wish to learn more. The challenge for the preacher should not be to bring God’s word down to our level, but it should be to rise to a high enough level to satisfy our hunger to learn. In the days of the Reformation, instruction in the Bible and theology was available every day of the week; what a transformation it would bring to our communities if such instruction were still available, where people from the congregation would gather in the church at various times during the day to be instructed in the Word of God before they head off to their daily vocations.

Along with instruction comes church discipline. Many fear its practice because they only see church discipline as something that offends people out of the church. We ought to be offended by a church that does not or will not practice church discipline because that means there is no desire to grow and mature in the practice of Biblical godliness. While instruction is designed to teach our minds how to think right about the things of God, discipline teaches our hearts how to live right as people of God. One goes hand in hand with the other. If people in a church desire to live faithfully, they should desire the sagely counsel from the Word of God when they err in the practice of their faith. And, when a church witnesses utter unrepentant within its midst, it is a sign that such a person is most clearly not a part of the body and should be removed from the privileges of the church for the sake of the health of the body. People often charge that such behavior is malicious and “mean,” yet is it malicious and mean to have a tumor removed from your body when it is threatening the health of the whole?

Can you imagine what it would look like in our communities if professing Christians went to the church Elders with civil and family disputes rather than to the courts? That may sound strange to us in modern times, but this is how the Apostle Paul said that the church should function. Why trust a pagan to rule rightly in a lawsuit when you can go to one who understands the Word of God for justice? Of course, that presumes that the church leaders do understand the Word of God and are trained in doing so. Do you see how our apathy for Christian instruction has deleterious effects on all areas of our life? Do you see how our abandonment of our Christian right to be instructed by the church has secularized not just the community but the church itself? Do you see how this right protects the other rights you enjoy in your civil realm? 

Indeed, the moral rights guaranteed to Americans make no sense whatsoever unless you understand that you are made in the image of God — but folks, that part comes from Biblical and theological instruction. Do you see that as we move further and further away from such instruction in the church, society becomes more and more godless. And, as society departs into what the psalmist would categorize as the thinking of the fool, we forfeit both our moral and civil rights as Americans. As my father would say, we need to honor those who sacrificed to bring us such rights — and the one who sacrificed the most, of course, was Jesus the Son of God himself.

Family

“And his mother and brothers came and standing outside they sent for him and called him. And there was a crowd sitting around him and they said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers, they are looking for you.’ And he answered them saying, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around toward those who were sitting about him he said, ‘Look! These are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”

(Mark 3:31-35)

The notion of family is one of the few things that all people have in common — that is we have one. At the same time, every family is unique. Some are large and others are small. Some are healthy and tight-knit and others are unhealthy and rather dysfunctional. Others still, it is sad to say, are toxic. Some are ever-present and some are essentially non-existent, abandoning their responsibilities. Nevertheless, as babies still need a mother and a father to be born into this world, that notion of family still is a common thread that we share.

There are other kinds of families as well. Some are adoptive, for example, where adults choose to ingraft into their home a child or children that is not biologically theirs but who will become spiritually theirs. There are also brotherhoods that form (or sisterhoods) where people find themselves connected closely as a kind of family. This often can be seen in military groups or in the life of people who share a time of distress. It also takes place in churches, where you are surrounded by people who will walk alongside of you during both the joys and crises of life. At times, these relationships will be closer and more intimate than ones held between biological connections, and rightly so.

This is the kind of family of which Jesus is speaking above. The funny thing, if you look at the broader context, is that his natural family has begun thinking that Jesus is out of his mind (Mark 3:21). He is teaching so much and preaching so much that he wasn’t eating right (Mark 3:20). How fun it is to imagine Jesus’ mother in an ordinary, average way — worrying that her son wasn’t eating enough. That certainly would have described my own mother to a tee. And so, they come to take him home, invariably to make sure that he gets some sleep and a good meal. 

If you know the story, you know what happens next — Jesus rebukes his natural family and embraces those who are following him as his family — once again, a picture of the church. How often it is that Christians have to leave homes and natural families behind for the Gospel. How often the Gospel functions as a sword and divides families down the middle. How comforting it is to be reminded that when families are left behind for the Gospel, God will give you spiritual families in abundance. 

Yet, there is one nuance about Jesus’ statement that is often overlooked. Jesus defines what it means to be in his family — to be in the church, the spiritual family of believers. He says, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother, sister, and mother.” Did you catch that? “Whoever does the will of God…” The mistake that people sometimes make in the life of a church is that they assume that the persons sitting around them are their spiritual family yet they do not also ask the question, “Is this fellow church member trying to do the will of God?” To borrow from Paul’s words it in Romans 12:2, with a renewed mind are they trying to discern what is the will of God so that they can do what is good and acceptable and perfect? 

There is a saying that goes: “Blood is thicker than water.” That simply means that our blood relationships will be closer and more indelible than the other relationships we have. The response to this saying is that Christ’s blood is thicker than human blood. And thus, the bond we have to Christ and to His Church will be tighter even than the bond we have to our family relations, this is a reality to which my own life can attest. Yet, we must never leave out doing the will of God because there are those in the local church who will purport to be a part of the body but who are not. They are impostors and antichrists whether they realize it or not. Just as Christians should never choose loyalty to family lines over loyalty to Christ, they also must not choose loyalty to local churches, denominations, or traditions over their loyalty to Christ. For, in doing so, they will often be aligning with those who are not obeying the will of God.

Pursue God in His fullness and you will quickly find who is truly the family of Christ.

The Unnecessary Member

In many biology textbooks, especially older ones, they speak about “vestigial organs.” The belief was that, as the human body “evolved,” there were left behind remains of previous stages of evolution and we are thus chock full of parts that are no longer needed. Examples if parts that are or were considered vestigial are things like the coccyx (better known as the tail-bone), the eyebrows, the appendix, and the thymus (a gland just under your breast-bone). In many cases, these organs are routinely removed as one can live without them.

Of course, from a Christian worldview, evolution is simply a bunch of rhetoric designed to explain the remarkable design all around us (and in us) without having to bow down to an almighty God who created all things. Further, vestigial organs aren’t. The coccyx exists not because we used to have a tail; it exists because it is a point of attachment for ligaments which connect and support the pelvis. The eyebrows protect and shade the eyes, the appendix is part of the immune system as is the thymus. For a more in-depth discussion of how vestigial organs aren’t vestigial, might I commend the book by Dr. Jerry Bergman and Dr. George Howe, entitled “Vestigial Organs” Are Fully Functional.

The idea of vestigial organs, though, struck me in the terms of how some people approach the church and its membership. The Apostle Paul used the analogy of the church being the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. Like a human body, Paul writes, the body of Christ has many parts. No single part is more significant than the other, there are no vestigial parts, and each part needs the function worked by the other parts of the body. True, the body can live without some of the parts, but the body was designed by God to have each part to be whole.

The real question that needs to be asked is not so much whether the parts are necessary; all of the parts of the body are necessary for the body to be whole. Instead, we should be asking first, whether certain members really are true members of the body and second, if they are members of the body, are they diseased in such a way that treatment (minor or serious) needs to be applied. 

  Think about the effect that a foreign body has when it is trapped as part of the human body. It hurts, it causes infection, and it typically does more damage than good. When my wife and I first got married, we bought an old farmhouse with hardwood floors. As a whole the floors were in pretty good shape but they were in need of refinishing, though that was a low priority given the renovations we needed to make. In the summers, I pretty much live in bare feet and one day caught a two-inch-long splinter from the floor into my foot. It was so heavily embedded that my wife had to get me a pair of pliers to pull it out. But, that is the point, I pulled it out. I don’t know which was more painful, getting stabbed by it or removing it, but nevertheless, leaving it in was not an option. It did not belong in my foot, it was not part of my natural body, and even though my body would have likely built up scar tissue around it over time, leaving it in was an invitation for future disease and problems.

The Scriptures are filled with references to anti-christs in our mist. These are people that become part of the visible church for a season but then leave behind the teachings of the one true church and begin making their own way. Sometimes they leave the church but often they remain (especially in our culture where most churches take an “anything goes” approach to membership). Like that splinter, they are a foreign body in the midst of the true body and that does not belong. 

The Scriptures are also filled with references as to what a true Christian is to look like. Jesus tells us to judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20) and that we should be careful lest we be led astray (Luke 21:8). John tells us to examine every spirit to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). Peter reminds us to beware of false prophets that bring in heresies that destroy (2 Peter 2:1). Paul tells us to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:1) and that the children of light seek to discern what is pleasing to God (Ephesians 5:8-10). Solomon warns that those who are prudent examine that which they are told (Proverbs 14:15). Even Moses commands that if there are dreamers and prophets telling the people that they need not fear God or obey his commands, that they should not be listed to, but should be put to death so as that they will not mislead any in the body (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). 

It is true that only God knows the heart of man (1 Samuel 16:7), but God gives us many indications as to how a true believer is to live. Shall we not examine the life of someone before we acknowledge them as a true believer? Shall we not take time to instruct rather than rushing people onto the rolls of our church just so that we can brag about numbers? Shall we not intentionally look at the fruit of a person’s life and ask the question as to whether someone walks in the Fruit of the Spirit or in the Works of the Flesh (Galatians 5:16-26)? Shall we not take pains to examine the body before we approach the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table so that harm may not come to both individual and congregation (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)?

But what of a diseased body part? Indeed, in many cases, parts of the human body are removed due to infection and disease. And, in some ways, the Christian church works that through the process of church discipline. Jesus lays out very clearly the manner in which the church is to discipline its members (Matthew 18:15-20). At times, this is more minor. One person goes to speak with someone engaged in a sinful practice, the person repents, and fellowship is restored. The loving admonition of a faithful brother or sister in faith is the penicillin of the church body.

Sometimes, though, the disease of sin is more persistent and is not constrained to a localized area. When the first admonition is rejected, another admonition is given (again in love and seeking repentance and reconciliation), and this time with one or two witnesses. Here is the presence of a stronger dose of antibiotics or perhaps the hands of a skilled surgeon working to restore function in a body part. And, if the person repents, the disease can be either killed or driven into permanent remission.

Yet, sometimes the disease is more deeply rooted still like a stubborn cancer that is seeking to spread. Thus, the appeal is made to the church. In the case of most Reformed circles, that is understood to be an outworking of the role of the Pastor and Elders. Where again the sin is confronted with the authority of the Word of God and the authority of the Overseers of the congregation. If sin (again) is not repented of, the person is to be put out of the body, just as one would remove a cancerous tumor. It would be hoped that the absence of the body will drive a person to repent, though very often, because it needed to go this far in the process, it became clear that the person was never a true member of the body — one who genuinely feared the Lord and sought to be obedient to the Word. Here is the dreaded word, “excommunication,” which is simply the pronouncement by the authorities of the church that a person is not a genuine believer and thus is not in communion with the body.

Yet, even still, such members are not truly “vestigial.” To be vestigial, they would have to have once been a part of the body. Yet, they weren’t truly ever a part of the body (1 John 2:19). They might have departed from the visible church, but they were never part of the invisible church — they were never actually a part of the body.

Chameleons in the Pulpit

I am not a biologist by training, but I am amazed at the ability of a chameleon to mimic the colors of its surroundings, creating a form of natural camouflage. I’m sure that someone who specializes in the biology of lizards could give an answer as to how the animal does that, but I am content to marvel not only at the remarkable little creature but also at the God who would design and create this creature to do such a wonderful thing…mutations and random chance my foot.

There is another kind of chameleon, though, that is far less marvelous and needs almost no scientific explanation. This kind of chameleon is the person who essentially tells people whatever they want to hear and who takes no firm positions on anything that matters. This is sometimes done to win supporters and “friends” and sometimes it is done to avoid conflict. Nevertheless, it is a form of camouflage that many people practice in our society.

I suppose that we most commonly associate this behavior with politicians. This is not an insult against all politicians, I have known a number of them over the years who have had a great deal of integrity and who will stand against popular opinion if it is the right thing to do. At the same time, there is often a reason behind the development of a stereotype. My son and I have been watching the various presidential debates over this past year and sadly it seems that these folks largely fit the stereotype to a tee. It is sad to me that politics in America has more to do with rhetoric and campaign finances than with real ideas about real issues. Our nation is poorer because of it.

Yet, though I grieve over the death of politics in America, what grieves me even more deeply is the death of the pulpit in our nation (and beyond!). If there is someone who is not called to be a chameleon, it is the preacher. His calling is to pronounce absolute right from absolute wrong to the people, reproving them in their sins, and teaching them the way they should go. My grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, used to say, “If you aren’t stepping on toes, you aren’t preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Sadly, preachers in our country rarely step on toes and have sought to be liked rather than to be respected as a man set apart to proclaim the truth.

I am no Wesleyan in my theology, but I do heartily concur with his statement that we are to be men “of one book.” That does not mean we do not read widely and study well; we are to be pastor-scholars as both Calvin and Wesley would have agreed. We are called, though to lift one book high above all of the others. It is the source of all truth and is the absolute guide for our lives. Telling stories may be interesting and telling the occasional joke may endear a congregation to their pastor, but the Bible convicts. And preaching is to be about convicting the heart, not entertaining it.

But, as politicians who do not wish to ruffle the feathers of their political base, so too, pastors often seek not to ruffle the feathers of their churches as well — and in fearing offense or seeking to avoid conflict, they fail to do what they have been called to do. Let the entertainer entertain, but let the man of God proclaim. He who is called to preach must do so even at the expense of offending those closest to him for Truth compromises for no one and God will hold those called to teach it doubly accountable. 

Be warned, ye chameleons who stand in pulpits, you are nothing to marvel at.

Why Would God Send Anyone to Hell?

This is one of those questions that tends to come up a lot in conversations with people in the community around me, even amongst professing Christians. When it is raised, it is not typically meant as an exegetical argument that challenges the Christian doctrine of justice, but it is a question that comes from a more emotional level. The reasoning looks something like this. “I don’t think that I could condemn anyone to Hell and God is more merciful than I am, thus he must not send people to hell.”

In my late teens and early twenties, I went through a number of years of rebellion against the church and the things that the church taught. During those years I never became an atheist per say, but I became a universalist based on the above idea. I used to say, “God is love and he is the perfection of love; hence, he must love even those whom I cannot find it in myself to love and surely love would not condemn someone to hell.” I used to tell people that I did believe that a hell existed, but I considered it vacant. 

There error in this line of thinking is two-fold. First, it demands that God define norms and actions on the basis of my preferences and standards. Because I could not condemn someone to eternal fire, then God must also not be able to do so. Secondly, it ignores the idea of justice, magnifying one attribute of God over and above all other attributes. In theological terms, God is “Simple,” meaning that not one aspect or attribute of God can be understood outside of the context of all the others — he is indivisible and perfectly consistent in himself.

The thing with justice is that it demands that punishment be given that is suitable to the crime that was committed. In addition, wherever possible, justice also demands that restitution is made. The example that I often give is that if I were to steal something from you, it is not good enough that I be punished for the theft, but you also want your things back (or appropriate compensation so you can repurchase that which was taken). And Biblically, were we to follow God’s established laws for Israel, restitution ought to be greater than the actual value of what was taken, depending on how important that thing happened to be. This greater restitution is designed both as a deterrent for those considering said theft and it is meant as a way of ameliorating the hardships caused by the theft.

And this has to do with theft. What of a more heinous crime like rape or murder? Certainly the punishment must be suitable to the crime. And, while no amount of money could ever atone for a crime like this, it would not be unreasonable to demand a certain degree of restitution from the criminal to compensate the family for medical bills, funeral expenses, etc… Further, a judge that decided to be merciful to a rapist or a murderer out of his or her love for the criminal, would be considered unjust and corrupt. He would be, in fact, promoting that which he should be punishing.

And now, we multiply. You see, all sin that is committed, is not only committed against others, but it is committed against God himself. And, as God is infinitely greater than man, the sin is infinitely more severe. Further, not only must sin be punished to see that justice is satisfied, but restitution must be made for justice to be fully done. Yet, how can man make restitution to God? Indeed, a perfect sacrifice had to be made in addition to the wrath of God being poured out in proper judgment over sin. And since you and I cannot make either the sacrifice nor endure the wrath of God, that is why Hell is our only proper and just punishment.

Does that mean that God is not merciful? That, of course, is the question that the Heidelberg Catechism poses on Day 4 (Question 11). The answer, of course, is to assure us that God’s mercy does not contradict his justice, that both are intertwined in and inseparable from the person of the God we serve. And so justice is served but mercy is shown through the suffering and death of his Son, who was sinless and could thus make a perfect sacrifice (restitution) and could suffer the weight of God’s wrath for all of God’s elect. Mercy, then, is seen in the giving of Christ for all who confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Justice melted out on the Son on behalf of those God has chosen since before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) means that mercy can be given to that same body of people.

And, what of those for whom Christ did not die? Justice must still be served and Hell awaits all who are outside of the body of Christ. Interestingly enough, even in this context, God gives a degree of mercy even to those who are reprobate and headed for punishment in Hell. How so? They have a life here on earth marked by many good things — friends, the joy of holding a child in your arms, the love of family, the simple joys of good music and good food. It is a small consolation, indeed, for eternity in Hell; nevertheless, even to those outside of God’s saving grace, God’s mercies can be seen (or at least ought to be seen). 

Worship and Wrath: Are they mutually exclusive?

As a child, I grew up singing old hymns of the faith — Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, and the like. Even today, many of these hymns are deeply ingrained in me. Then, somewhere in my early twenties, praise music became all the rage in the church I attended. And so, I was introduced to essentially a newer and more contemporary body of hymnody — largely written to be accompanied with a guitar than with an organ. And, as with some of the hymns that I grew up singing, some of these “old school” praise songs still can elicit a powerful emotional response.

As I’ve grown older and arguably more mature in my faith, I freely confess that I am drawn more to singing the psalms. This is not a dig against those who are writing hymnody so much as it is a reflection on the fact that I am paying more attention to the words I am singing and desire that those words be as Biblically and theologically accurate as possible. In many cases, when I sing hymns and praise songs, I end up singing with my guard up — something I don’t want to have to do. And so there is a natural gravitation toward the psalms and other Canonical songs.

What has struck me, though, is how different the tone of Canonical singing is than that of the hymnody and praise music with which I am familiar. Namely, I can’t think of too many hymns or praise songs that praise God for his wrath and for the destruction of his enemies. Sure, there is “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…,” but that’s not really about God’s wrath, its a call to evangelism and spiritual battle. Truly this is an appropriate theme to sing, but it not so much sing praise for God’s work of destroying his enemies in judgment. And I am not saying this because I wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh my, I want to sing of God’s wrath!” But then again, sometimes I do. 

What has struck me about the Biblical songs of worship is that they do not just cover the happy parts of the Christian life. They sing of the feelings of abandonment, the struggle with loss, and the righteous anger the Christian ought to feel when facing the abominations of the wicked. And they sing praise to God for his wrath against the wicked. 

The reality of this proved striking to me this weekend as I opened our worship. I have been using the songs of praise from Revelation as the language of our calls to worship this year and I arrived on Sunday at chapter 19:1-3, where the multitude in heaven are praising God for judging the great prostitute. That was clear enough, but the words that closed these verses sing praise to God that her “smoke goes up forever!” Indeed! Here are the saints in heaven glorifying God that the destruction of the prostitute, Babylon, is so great that she will burn in hell forever. The language of judgment certainly fills the pages of Revelation, but this passage truly stood out to me. 

To be honest, I can’t say that I ever remember singing a hymn or a praise song that contained language like that. Wesley, Toplady, Newton, Watts, etc…, I don’t think I have run into a hymn from one of them that is structured like that. And, if these authors did write hymns praising God for his wrath upon the unbelieving world, they I don’t think they have made their way into any of the hymnals that I have used. Yet, they are in the psalters. Why? Because they are in the psalms.

One of the main errors of the church in America today is that it is theologically unbalanced. Preaching on the Law and on Sin is de-emphasized and preaching on grace is emphasized to such a degree that it dominates the conversation of the Christian. This has created an imbalanced theology in much of America. And, this imbalanced theology has created a culture that don’t think that sin is that bad and they embrace a form of universalism that implies that everyone gets to go to heaven so long as they ask. 

Could there be a connection between the way we think and what we sing? I think that there is. Songs have long been one of the most effective ways to teach ideas to people (young and old). This is why we memorize our alphabet using the ABC Song. In seminary, we had to be able to recite the 66 books of the Bible in order — I cannot even begin to say just how many of my peers memorized the books of the Bible as a song. Funny. Music has a way of bypassing many of our intellectual filters and therein lies the danger. When we are singing things outside of the Canon of Scripture, we open ourselves up to the errors of those who wrote the hymn or even to an imbalanced view of God based on the choices made by the one selecting the hymns to sing. 

Am I arguing for exclusive psalmody? Not entirely, though it probably would not take much to convince me of the value of exclusive Canonical singing. There are also hymns that are essentially composed of sections of scripture that have been strung together. These can open the door to the potential for using a passage out of its context to make the hymn author’s point, but they are in the realm of what I am growing toward. Recognizing that even exclusive psalm singers are at the mercy of those who translate and versify the psalms, there is no bullet-proof solution. What I am advocating though, is more intentional choices when it comes to the selection of music for worship. Not only ought the music we sing be scriptural, but it also must reflect the breadth of the language with which the people of God are to use as we worship God. In other words, let us not just sing about the wonderful grace and mercy of God, but also of the wrath and judgment he wields over sin. 

Unity, Busyness, Tolerance, and Compromise: Not Synonymous

One of the attributes of the church, toward which we are called to strive, is unity. Indeed, how “good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1) and how important it is that we strive to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” that must exist within the church (Ephesians 4:3). Truly, it is a wonderful and a beautiful thing to see Biblical unity growing amongst the body of Christ.

But Biblical, Christian unity is hard and it takes work. As a result many other things often get put in its place. Sometimes the church becomes busy with activities, something akin to the work of a beehive, with everyone buzzing around consumed by the things that must be accomplished. At times like this, there is so much going on that it feels as if people are united, though no one has the time to notice that the unity is tenuous at best. Activities unite them rather than the worship of Christ. How sad it is that churches often fall into this trap. 

Sometimes those activities take the form of a program — things to research, demographic studies, and drawing conclusions about the community around them. Sadly, of course, most of the conclusions drawn are fairly obvious to those who have lived in the community for any length of time; nevertheless, such studies are often pursued with great energy and vigor. The church that I attended as a child was much like this — there was always a program going on and when a program ran its course, there was a pursuit of a new program to fill the void.

Then something happens and the activities either slow down, come to a close, or are halted for one reason or another. In the absence the activity or program, the problems that these things covered up come to the surface and people begin to face the reality that they have to either avoid one another or begin engaging in more authentic ways. Truly, this does not have to be a bad thing; in fact it is a very healthy thing for the body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is an uncomfortable thing that many people are unwilling to confront and many fall away, seeking other busy places.

Sadly, busyness is not the only thing that the church sometimes substitutes for Biblical unity. Sometimes unity is confused with tolerance. Tolerance is the practice of being willing to accept ideas and practices that one disagrees with for the sake of avoiding strife. This does not need to be an insidious thing, but it becomes so when tolerance is only a public persona and, when in private, the gossip begins. Then tolerance becomes little more than disgruntled resentment. Once again, authentic relationship is avoided lest the anger or frustration come to the surface and the facade of unity be laid bare and shown to be the hollow thing that it really is.

The sister of tolerance is compromise. How often people fail to face or take stands on difficult subjects because of fear of disagreement. Rather than working through differences in submission to a standard (the Bible), those differences are considered to be secondary and non-essential to unity. While indeed, some differences are non-essential to unity, when one begins down the pathway of compromising truth for the sake of unity, eventually essentials will be placed in the category of non-essentials. Further, compromise in this way is often a denial of both the notion of absolute Truth, the belief in the understandability of the Word of God, and also a denial of the rules of logic.

Compromise denies the notion of absolute Truth because it assumes that there is no absolute True answer to a given question. When there is a disagreement, there are only three possible options: Person “A” is right and person “B” is wrong, Person “A” is wrong and person “B” is right, or both Person “A” and “B” are wrong. And since God has given us minds to think and reason as well as His Word to study, shall we not labor to determine the right answer and not compromise?

Compromise denies that the Scriptures can be properly understood when it comes to important matters. In theological terms, we speak of this in terms of “perspicuity” or “clarity.” In other words, we say that the scriptures are crystal clear when it comes to the essentials for salvation while there are other things that are more opaque in nature. Does this principle, then, teach that there are things on which we must compromise? Not really. It simply teaches that there are some things on which we must labor more carefully and dig deeper. Yet, many of these matters have already been fleshed out for us by those who have gone before us and have written the Creeds and Confessions which we have inherited as a church. In this fashion, the church worked through the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, but it also spoke of baptism, worship, and many other things that we still debate about. Isn’t it interesting that our tendency to “pick and choose” what we like from an early council or confession leads us into compromise?

Compromise also denies the rules of logic. Logic no longer seems to be “in vogue” these days, but nevertheless, logic is essential for communication, invention, and life in community. While society might like to play fast and loose with logic, the church must not. The most basic principle of logic is referred to as “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” This can be summarized as the idea that “A” cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same way. For our purposes, we must be clear that two mutually-exclusive ideas cannot both be correct. For instance, either the sprinkling only view or the immersion only view of baptism is correct. Both cannot be so as they are mutually contradictory positions. Churches that choose to accept any view you hold are making a compromise for the sake of unity, but in doing so, deny the basic laws of logic.

More importantly, in all of these areas (compromise, tolerance, and busyness) we end up seeking to create a kind of unity by human means, not by divine means or by Biblical means. Isn’t it interesting that as much as the Bible speaks about Christian unity, Christians rarely look to the Bible to provide the means and definition of said unity. Whether we attribute it to our sin nature or to our downright active rebellion against God, we as the Church, must address what God says about our unity and then pursue God’s means of achieving it.

To begin with, true Christian unity, begins with an attitude of the heart. King David writes: “Instruct me, Yahweh, in your way so that I can walk in your truth; unite my heart to the fear of your name.” (Psalm 86:11). In other words, if we are going to have any sort of unity in the church, our hearts must first be united in the fear of the Lord and we must be a people who are committed to the instruction of the Lord’s ways. Yet, how often this is the last thing that church bodies look toward when it comes to binding together in unity. Nevertheless, it is the first step in moving in that direction.

The Apostle Paul builds upon what it is that David says when he writes: “I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in order that you all agree and that there might not be divisions amongst you. Yet, be united in the same mind and in the same intent.” (1 Corinthians 1:10). One of the great problems that Paul was addressing in the Corinthian church was divisions and factions which were tearing the church apart and creating all sorts of avenues for sin. Yet, you will notice Paul’s solution. It is not compromise or tolerance or activities. Paul’s solution is to be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. In other words, Paul is saying that the church must have a united world-in-life view before these factions and divisions will go away. And how will that united worldview develop? It develops by sitting under the instruction of the Word of God that we might be united in our fear of Him.

Paul develops this idea further in Ephesians 4:11-16. Paul writes:

“And he gave the Apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers to train the saints for the work of service, for the building up of the body in Christ, until we all arrive at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, into mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, in order that we may no longer be infants tossed about and carried about by every wind of doctrine or the cunning of men by craftiness and deceitful schemes. But being truthful in love, we should grow up in every way into Him who is our Head, Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together and brought together — every ligament with which it is supplied, working as each is designed — makes the body increase and be built up in love.”

While there is much that can be said about this passage, for our purposes there are two points that should be made. The first is found in the language of God’s goal for the body — that it grow up into maturity. What does that maturity look like? The church is not thrown about as a ship on rough seas by every wind of doctrine and human cunning. In other words, a mature church is a doctrinally sound church. Further, given that a mature church is also a united church, to unite a church means that we must unite the church around true doctrine or teaching. Until that happens, the church will always be thrown to and fro.

The second point that is worth making is that the united body that speaks truth in love is one that is built up into mature doctrine. You cannot speak truth in love if you are not first committed to instruction in the fear of the Lord — the theme of David once again. The point is that right doctrine has an effect on the way people live out their lives. It is not separate from it. And thus, if you are doctrinally sound, you will speak truth in love. And, until you are doctrinally sound, what truth you know will not be spoken in love. 

In the end, we are left at the same place we were when we started. If we want unity in the church, it cannot be achieved by man’s rules and ways. It can only be achieved by God’s. And God’s design for unity in the church begins with unity around the Word of God — around doctrine — around truth. If the body is committed to truth, there will be Christian unity. If the body is not committed to Christian truth, no matter how much work you do, unity will never be achieved.

God Said It and Yes, That Settles It

God Said it and Yes, that Settles It: An open letter in response to Adam Hamilton, on the United Methodist decision on the question of homosexuality in the church.

(Dr. Hamilton’s Original Post can be found here)

One of the benefits of the internet age is that it has allowed communication and ideas to be shared in a way that is unprecedented in human history. My old college professors used to lament this because it meant that anyone with a computer could post their thoughts for all to see, no matter how accurate their information may actually be. While I respect the positions of my former professors and take their words as a caution to read what others says with a grain (or lots of grains) of salt, I celebrate the change that has taken place. Think about it this way, there is a time not so long ago when the corporate publishing houses largely controlled the dissemination of ideas. That meant (typically) that the process of writing articles and books “belonged” to the professionals in their field. In turn, the average person in the west kept their ideas to themselves or to a small group of friends. Now, ideas can be freely shared broadly and people from every walk of life are encouraged to enter into the conversation. And Dr. Hamilton, given that you are a blogger as I am, I expect that you and I agree on this principle.

One of the interesting aspects of this larger conversation is that people are drawn in from broader perspectives than those having the actual conversation itself. While sometimes this is helpful, if it is not being actively sought, it can often be harmful — particularly in the context of debates that affect the lives of numerous people. That is why, when my wife forwarded this article (sent to her from a cousin), my initial reaction was, “I don’t have a dog in this fight — I left the United Methodist church almost 20 years ago — I’m staying out of it.”

Then I got to thinking and realized that I do have a dog in this fight. Not only was I born and raised in the United Methodist Church and have both a mother and a grandfather who were ordained in the United Methodist Church, but I also began preaching in the United Methodist Church. It was during the five years of preaching as a Licensed Lay Speaker (typically in the pulpit more than I was out of it) that my theology changed and I shifted from being a Wesleyan to a Calvinist (hence my departure). And so, I have roots in the United Methodist Church and am grateful to that church for giving me the opportunity to preach. There are also people for whom I care deeply that are invested in the denomination. Any denominational decision that grieves their spiritual wellbeing, then, grieves my heart as well. And, to borrow the words of Jesus, “whoever causes one of these little ones to stray, it would be better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and drowned in the sea.” Hard words, but words to which we must take heed.

And so, Dr Hamilton, be aware that others are listening. And while I am a Calvinist, I am a Calvinist who owes a debt of gratitude to you who are in the Wesleyan tradition — when I initially left the UMC to join the PCA, I used to tell people that I was a “Welsh Calvinist-Methodist in the spirit of Whitefield and Lloyd-Jones.” I trust, Dr. Hamilton, that you can appreciate that sentiment.

There is a stream of logic, though, within your blog that I think is worth addressing. You closed your article with the words: “The Bible says it, but I don’t believe that settles it.” Your position was supported by a number of Old and New Testament rules and guidelines that nearly every Biblical scholar considers to be matters of contextual application and not meant to be permanent and ongoing for the church. For example, you mention that we no longer advocate stoning for Sabbath-breaking (though boy, that would help church attendance, wouldn’t it?). We also no longer stone the incorrigible child or adulterers. We also do not anticipate being commanded to commit genocide and would prosecute those who would seek to attempt genocide. We also take out loans for automobiles and homes…and worse yet, we use our credit cards for most every purchase we make. Women aren’t required to wear hats (though many do on Easter Sunday) and men don’t shave their heads — frankly, I would grow my hair out again if I thought my Elders would condone it (lol!). So, I do understand the point you are making: we need to take the commands of scripture in the context of the passage in which they are found.

And so, as many of these commands are in the context of the civil law of ancient Israel, and we are no longer living under a theocratic form of government, many of these laws do not have a direct bearing on the way we live.  But, from this point forward, we will differ. Because these laws are given by God, they teach us principles about his character — what God permits and what God finds to be sin when practiced in the lives of his people. Further, we also recognize that these Old Testament laws flow out of the Ten Commandments (which Jesus states will not pass away until the heavens and the earth pass away). And thus, we do not completely throw those laws out the window. In fact, in many western cultures, principles found in Biblical laws were applied to new contexts to create God-honoring laws in a new day and age. 

An example of the aforementioned point is that of placing fences around flat roofs to prevent people from rolling off. This is a practical application of a principle found in God’s character — all humans are made in God’s image and thus their lives should be protected where possible. This, is also an application of the 6th commandment. Now, we may not have flat roofs, but we have many areas like swimming pools or construction sites where there are typically ordinances that are built upon the principle taught in Deuteronomy 22:8.

You may ask, what about the command to stone adulterers? The same principle applies. We learn about God’s attitude toward adultery and divorce by the strictness of this command…something that Jesus echoes again in Matthew 19:3-12. And, though the rules regarding divorce in America have gotten more and more permissive, that wasn’t always the case. And, as a fellow pastor, I expect that you probably share my view that divorce is too accessible in the United States and that they do tremendous damage to the life of the family. 

How about not storing up treasure on earth? You and I once again, probably share a lot in common in this area, too. Too often, the wealth that people store up for retirement becomes an idol in their lives and stops them from doing ministry like they should. Amen? Sure, we should save money for such a time as when we are no longer able to be gainfully employed — counting the cost of building that tower that Jesus mentions — but there is a difference between enough and a super-abundance. And how much better can that wealth be used in building Christ’s kingdom? I am reminded of one of my favorite sayings from John Wesley: “Money and I are but passing acquaintances…” This, of course, sets the stage for his philosophy of earning all you can so you can give all you can. 

And thus, when we get to the laws regarding the stoning of those practicing homosexual behavior, no, we do not actually carry this out. Yet, the principle that the law is built upon shows us God’s character. Furthermore, the language about homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 is language that is found not in the context of a law, but of a principle of keeping oneself sexually pure. In context, God is writing that this is the way Egyptians lived and I wiped them out; this is the way the Canaanites live and I am about to wipe them out. Do not live like your neighbors do or I will throw you out of the land as well. And so here is not just a passage from which we can infer a principle based on God’s laws for national Israel, here is a direct moral application of the seventh commandment.

Let me approach this from a different angle. When approaching a question in Scripture that was debated, Wesley offered a 4-fold approach to interpretation that we know as “Wesley’s Quadrilateral.” I know that you, Dr. Hamilton, are likely far more acquainted with this principle than I, but for the benefit of our readers following along with the conversation, let me offer up briefly what was ingrained upon me in my earlier days as a Methodist. 

Essentially, Wesley argued that when there was a passage of Scripture that is unclear, one uses four tools to unpack what is being said: Scripture itself, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. What then, shall we say about the question of homosexual relationships when the Quadrilateral is used to explore the idea? 

To begin with, what does Scripture teach? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that homosexuals (along with those who commit to a number of other sinful practices) will not inherit the Kingdom of God. It is true that there is forgiveness in Christ whereby we are made a part of the Kingdom, but forgiveness requires repentance (Luke 24:46-47; Acts 8:22). As you well know, Dr. Hamilton, repentance means that you have changed your mind toward something you have been doing and have turned away from it. If a person is continuing to practice their sin (inside or outside of the context of the church), then they are clearly not repentant (see 1 John 3:4). 

What else does Scripture teach? Paul instructs Timothy  (1 Timothy 1:10) that those who practice homosexual behavior are doing what is contrary to “sound doctrine.” And, like the passage in 1 Corinthians 6, homosexual behavior is listed alongside of other sinful actions. Furthermore, Paul writes in Romans 1:26-27 that the homosexual actions of the people (both gay and lesbian in this instance) were a sign that God had withdrawn his restraining grace due to the idolatry of the people. John, in his Apocalypse, records that those who are sexually immoral (remember the list from Leviticus 18) will have their eternal portion in the lake of fire. 

Typically, people look to Leviticus 20:13, which commands the death penalty for homosexual practice, but as we have mentioned already, Leviticus 18:22 is the definitive passage in the Old Testament that defines what is a pagan and immoral sexual act. But what of Genesis 13:13 which speaks of the men of Sodom? This action takes place again in Judges 19:22. We can also infer from 1 Kings 14:24 that the male prostitutes of the land were doing according to the “abominations of the nations the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” What were those abominations? Leviticus 18.

My point is that I am not aware of a single passage of Scripture that speaks positively of the practice of homosexuality. No, not one. That is the testimony of Scripture alone. Where I stand now, in the Reformed tradition, this is largely where we stop — something we refer to as the “Reformed Hermeneutic,” but we are exploring this in the Wesleyan tradition, so what do tradition, reason, and experience have to say on the matter?

I think that you would be hard pressed to discover a theologian prior to liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century that would affirm homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. In Wesley’s own notes on the New Testament, he has some strong language when it comes to speaking of those practicing homosexuality, calling them Sodomites. 

What of reason, then? Homosexuality, one could argue, is simply a natural inclination of certain people and thus should be tolerated at the very least in a culture that permits free expression. Yet, if that is the case, why do we not also tolerate polyamorous relationships? Should not group marriage also be allowed? Mormons advocated this to no avail for many years and Muslims are advocating this today. Why not other sexual practices that are ordinarily considered immoral? What defines the limits of morality? Does culture define this or does God? If you advocate for the culture, you are separating yourself from hundreds of years of Christian thought and philosophy. 

What of experience? Certainly there are cultures which have tolerated degrees of homosexual behavior and sometimes even celebrated it, though the latter is very rare. There are also those who would argue that the homosexual relationships of which the Bible speaks are different from a loving and committed relationship advocated by those in the movement seeking to legitimate homosexual marriages today. Yet, experience is subjective by nature and is the weakest of Wesley’s four approaches. Statistics would also suggest that homosexual relationships, more often than not, do not have the longevity of heterosexual relationships. We could explore this at length, but even using Wesley’s own approach, advocating approval for a homosexual marriage or relationship in the context of the church, is really difficult to affirm.

From a Reformed perspective, the move of more mainstream denominations like the UMC toward a view that accepts homosexual practice as accepted seems more to be the church’s accommodation of a shift in the cultural attitude toward homosexuals. Yet, I am reminded of G. Campbell Morgan’s great quote that the church is called to lead the culture, not to follow it. Or, perhaps Jesus’ own words that the world does not accept us because Christ has called us out of the world (John 15:18-21).

In the end, Dr. Hamilton, the decision that the UMC makes will not directly affect me, my denomination, or the church I serve. Yet, it will do so indirectly due to friendships, family, and other acquaintances that fall within your denomination. I have appreciated the irenic approach to disagreement that is so often a part of your writings and I hope that you receive this open letter in the kind of irenic spirit with which it is meant.

You expressed your ideas in a public way and thus I offer a public response, though I do not suppose that a conservative and Reformed position on Scripture is really being sought out. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that a plea to reconsider your position is not being offered up. 

In the end, let me ask you the question, if you hold to the statement, “The Bible says it, but I don’t believe that settles it,” then what settles the matter? Church tradition and reason also do not help your cause if you are advocating for gay marriage in the church. Are you willing to stand on experience alone? That seems to be shaky footing. I prefer to stand on God’s word (which challenges me and the culture for sure) because if God said it, that must settle it for Christ’s Church. I encourage you to reconsider your position.

The Art of Dissection and High School Biology

If I ever had any aspirations of going into the field of medicine, High School Biology class dashed them to the wind. Now, mind you, I attended a little Public High School in rural Harford County, Maryland and so “state-of-the-art” was little more than a series of spelling words for us. Nevertheless, we had biology class and in biology class, we dissected dead animals.

Mind you, we didn’t get to dissect anything exotic. Our teacher was a fisherman by avocation and so most of what we dissected related to that hobby: worms, crawfish, small fish, etc… Needless to say, for a teenage boy having grown up in the Boy Scouts, dissecting critters like this was not a huge draw.

What made things worse was the fact that those were the days when pretty much every boy carried some sort of knife in his pocket to school, but the School Board did not trust us with scalpels to do the dissections. Instead, we were assigned this little, rounded scissors — kind of like what we had used for crafts back in Kindergarten — to dissect these animals. 

I don’t know what the School Board members were thinking (probably about liability), but if you are unsure as to the results we got, Kindergarten shears do not serve the budding biologist well in this task. I remember looking at all of the diagrams in our biology book, depicting what we were supposed to be seeing and all I remember ever seeing was mush. There is a rule of thumb principle in this — imprecise tools in the hands of a novice does not yield precision in any meaningful sense of the word. 

So, why the recollection about High School Biology? In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul gives us one of the great analogies of the church — that of the body of Christ. Not all are eyes or hands but both eyes and hands are needed. You know the language. Yet, often, when pastors and theologians handle this idea and apply it to the church, I think that they handle it much like we handled dissection with Kindergarten shears. They make a mess and the body of Christ ends up looking like all the same stuff: mush.

Let me offer an example. In many denominations, if someone is identified as having a call to serve on the missions field or perhaps to go and plant a new church for the denomination, they are sent out to start raising money. True, the benefit to that model is that by the time the man is in the field, he has developed a large network of churches and Christians to help pray for and support his work — though most often, those churches and Christians are not anywhere near the field in which the man is working. Furthermore, it makes the assumption that the calling to be an evangelist brings with it the gift of being a fund-raiser. And the two do not necessarily go hand in glove.

A better model would be to say that if the church identifies a man as having the calling to serve as an evangelist, the church should send him and let him commit fully to said work while assigning the task to others in the body (who have a gift for and love of fund-raising) the task of making sure the evangelist’s financial needs are met. Different parts of the body have different roles, tasks, and giftings so that the whole body can function effectively.

It is true that we are fed by one Spirit and that we have one head in Christ Jesus. And so, there are some things that the whole body shares in common — a circulatory system and a nervous system, for example. Thus, there are things that the whole body does together. We gather for public worship, we commit time to prayer, and we study our Bibles. But, when it comes to the good works that we are called to do, we are most effective doing those works for which God has designed us. Not everyone is called to teach, but we need teachers. Not everyone is called to labor in mercy ministry, but we need those who do. Not everyone is called to organize events, but if we are going to put on an event of sorts, we need people to organize them. Not everyone is called to raise funds for projects, but we need people who raise funds. Not everyone is called to be at every mid-week prayer meeting, but they are good and healthy for the body (think of them like a vitamin tablet!). And, when you assume that every believer should be involved in every area of the work of the church (as many do), then you are making mush of the body with those kindergarten shears once again — rather than seeing the beauty of God’s design in the elegant complexity of the body.

Here’s the trick though. Each part of the body needs to be committed to a common end and each part of the body needs to trust the other parts of the body to act and work in the way in which they were designed. Just as in the human body, parts do not act autonomously, so too, all is meant to work under the headship of Christ that is expressed through the teaching of the Word of God and is moderated by the oversight of the Elders. Yet, the hand can do best what the hand was made to do and the other parts likewise. 

And so, leadership in the body is not simply a matter of maintaining systems (your body can be physically healthy but your person can still remain utterly unproductive). Leadership is about equipping hands to be hands and eyes to be eyes and knees to be knees — and then letting those parts function at their full capacity (getting out of their way) so that the body as a whole can achieve its God-given mission of making disciples of the nations and being a buttress and pillar of the truth. 

Now, part of Paul’s analogy is the principle that when one part of the body is hurting or in need, then other parts compensate. I stand amazed, for example, at people who have learned to do with their feet what most of us commonly do with our hands, and vice versa. Having had a stroke several years back where my left hand no longer wanted to work right, I had to learn to compensate and then to retrain my brain to make my hand work like it was supposed to do. And thus, in the church, sometimes we step out of our normal areas to assist the whole body in its time of need, but that too, only happens when the body is committed to a common end. 

And so, we have a choice, as we look at the church, the body of Christ, we can lump all of the gifts together, dissecting the body with kindergarten shears (and ending up with a gooey mess) or you can expose the elegant diversity of God’s design for the church, celebrating the diverse gifts while knowing that all of those gifts came from one Spirit who calls us to serve to one end — the building of Christ’s kingdom. 

I Smell Hell!

It is said that the American evangelist, Peter Cartwright (1785-1872), would pronounce these words when he arrived in a new town to preach: “I smell Hell!” And, much like the other revivalists of his era, he would find a place to set up and he would preach to whomever would listen. And indeed, people would come to listen. That was the culture in America during what people sometimes refer to as the “Second Great Awakening” or what others would simply call the close of the “Great Awakening” in America. Dates and labels I will leave to other historians to catalogue.

What I find to be a sad testimony as to the nature of the culture is that the language of preaching has changed. If Cartwright were alive today, his message might sound more like Billy Graham’s, “God wants you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior,” or even worse, like Joel Osteen’s, “God wants you to be happy and to have the desires of your heart!” Whatever the popular preachers and evangelists may sound like, it seems that wrath and hell, fire and brimstone, and repentance from sin has been all but forgotten — or is only mentioned in passing and not stressed. Indeed, people want a God who will love them just as they are, not a God that is angry with them as a result of their sin.

Yet, what people want and what the Bible teaches in this case are two different things — surprise, surprise. Yet, rather than be a steward of the oracles of God, the church has largely become a steward of modest worldly blessings and blind promises. G. Campbell Morgan used to say that it is the duty of the church to correct the spirit of the age rather than to follow it; sadly, too many congregations look around at dwindling numbers and opt to follow the spirit of the age, watering down the message of the Gospel until it is no Gospel at all, in the hopes of drawing more people in with a “more loving” message.

Folks, if someone defines “more loving” as being warm and fuzzy, tell them to go buy a nice sweater or a dog. A friendly Alaskan Malamute or an over-sized turtle-neck sweater from Alpaca wool will give you all of the warm, fuzzy loving that you need at a fraction of the cost and inconvenience of going to a popular church service or crusade meeting. But if that was truly love, then you wouldn’t need either God or the Bible.

Love is being told how to see the world accurately and in a way that is eternally truthful. Love is being made aware that there is a judgment coming one day and that unless we approach the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, we will be eternally condemned to righteous torment and wrath. Love is being told clearly that our works cannot make God happy with us and they amount to little more than dung in the eyes of a holy God. Love is telling a person that unless they repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ, nothing but sorrow will fill their lives, but if they do, even the greatest joys of earth cannot compare to the joy of heaven. Love is being honest and clear that if you were able to smell it, you would smell Hell on every American street corner and that most people have gotten so accustomed to it that they do not even notice.

Cartwright and I might disagree on a number of points of our theology and we also might disagree on our approaches to evangelism (he used a number of high-pressure tactics rather than trusting in the Holy Spirit for true conversion), but we are agreed on this starting point. Hell is in our midst and it is in the midst of our churches. The kind and culturally accommodating approach to evangelism has not done anyone any favors. Indeed, God will still call his own to himself despite their methodology, but ought not we seek to hold fast to the Gospel as presented in the Scriptures? Ought we not say that there is no way to the Father but through Jesus Christ the Son? Ought we not proclaim that unless you repent and believe in Jesus you will perish eternally? And ought we not trust the Holy Spirit to prepare soil in men and women so that they will bear the fruit of repentance in their lives? Ought our message not begin with vague promises or warmth and love, but instead be warnings to repent and believe? Like Cartwright, when I look at the world around me, “I smell Hell.”

Do We Really Need Seminaries?

Let me preface what I am about to say with the statement that I had an exceptional experience in a formal seminary atmosphere. In RTS, Jackson, I had the privilege of sitting under some men who were pastors at heart but who were also exceptional thinkers, communicators, and authors. I also made some friendships that have remained with me to this day. I am truly grateful for that time. Further, I teach in a formal seminary context in Ukraine and definitely see the logistical advantages to a formal, institutional model. 

So, with that prefacing my comments below, please do not think that I am advocating an overthrow of the formal, or institutional, model. Yet, having now served Christ’s church full-time for more than a decade, I have come to re-think some of the assumptions that we make when it comes to training men for the ministry…one of which is how that training is to be done. Further, as a Reformed thinker, I have asked myself, is this model consistent with who we are as Reformed Christians or, have we yielded too much ground to Rome — in some ways, I fear that the latter may very well be true.

To begin with, the term “Seminary” comes from the Latin word for a “seedbed.” I have written on this before, but at the very heart of this is the notion that “seminarial” training, by the definition of the word is preparatory in nature and is not meant to be advanced study. Before everyone gets all wound up, let me explain what I mean by this. I am not saying that pastors ought not be scholars — folks, we must be. Our role is to be a teacher of the church, a guard on the wall against heresy, and a trainer of men and women when it comes to thinking correctly about their faith. We must be good scholars — it is a non-negotiable for the ministry as we are “pastors and teachers” according to Paul.

Interestingly, the term “seminary” finds its formal origins in the Council of Trent, a Roman reaction to the Reformation. At the heart of the Reformation was the conviction that the average person in the pews needed to be able to read and understand the whole of the Scriptures for himself. As a result, cities within which the Reformation set its roots found themselves forming schools to train people in theology — the Geneva Academy was a direct result of this mindset (hence, seminary being preparatory for the whole of the Christian life). Rome forcefully insisted that theological training belonged in the Academy, not in the pews (see chapter XVIII). This effectively limited theological training to the priesthood and took it out of the hands of the laymen — the suggestion that theology is too technical and complicated for the average believer (sadly, a view perpetuated in many protestant churches today). 

When you assume that “seminary” is meant for advanced training, you not only discourage the average person in the pews from pursuing such Biblical education, but you end up with a context where the word itself no longer parallels the metaphoric value of its meaning. Think about it this way…here in western Pennsylvania, we have a relatively short growing season due to our climate and the fact that we have the potential of frost through most of May. Thus, if you are going to plant vegetables like tomatoes, the seeds need to be started in protected “seminaries” — seedbeds inside a greenhouse of one sort or another. The seedbed allows them to grow unmolested by the weather until they are ready to be planted in the ground in late May or early June.

Compared to the mature plant, these plants you have grown inside are small and they bear no fruit. It is not until they are hardened to direct sunlight and the winds of the outdoors, are pollinated by the insects and the wind, and have their roots sunk deep into our rocky Pennsylvania soil that the plants grow strong and then bear fruit. Do you see how the analogy of the language works? The seedbed (the seminary) is a protected place of basic training and real growth and maturity will not take place until the seminarian is planted in the world. So, where should you expect the formation of deep theological roots? It happens as the minister goes out of the time of training and into the world, feverishly studying so as to be able to engage and respond to the challenges of his environment. Too often, seminarians today think of their seminary training as terminal and they rarely pick up a theological textbook beyond the days of the formal classroom. The people of Christ’s church (including the pastors) have lost a great deal by submitting to Rome’s model.

The other challenge that goes hand-in-glove with the model established by Trent is that if a man wants to go to seminary for theological training, most often he must sell his home, resign from his job, and move somewhere “else” for that training. This creates, if nothing else, a financial hardship on the family, in many cases, forcing the wives to work outside of the home, and requires student loans. Thus, seminarians often find themselves graduating seminary with a load of personal debt as they enter into a job where typically the salary is not commensurate with the degree of training involved. In turn, many will be paying off student loans for the vast majority of their career.

Further, when a family relocates to attend seminary, this effectively removes the family from the life of the local church wherein his gifts and calling was discerned. This means that the local church which is sending him for training cannot effectively oversee the training he is receiving (should this not be overseen by the Pastor and elders?). This also means that the local church is not directly benefitting from the training this man receives — for example, he is not teaching Sunday School Classes, working with youth, visiting shut-in members, or occasionally filling the pulpit. Furthermore, this perpetuates the unBiblical idea that theological training does not belong in the local church.

This also perpetuates the view that the local pastor is not qualified to train another minister. People justify this by stating that the minister is too busy during the week in his duties of pastoral care to study and teach deep theological truths. But, what if the congregation, instead of the pastor, saw it as their calling to do the majority of the pastoral care under the oversight of the Elders and the Deacons? Would that not be consistent with what Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:12? Is this not the reason that the Apostles instituted the Diaconate in the first place (Acts 6:1-6)? Ought not the ministry of prayer and the Word be the pastor’s first and primary role in the life of the church? And if this is the case, ought not the role of training up new men to serve as pastors be a significant part of that role? Did God not bless the church in Acts 7 when they kept these roles clear? Once again, the bad model of Rome finds itself doing damage to rather than aiding the Church of Jesus Christ.

A Thought…

As I regularly tell my children, criticism isn’t of much value unless it is constructive criticism. So, what are some options that might address the challenge we face?

To begin with, given the electronic resources available to us, we need to make better use of them.  Some schools, like The North American Reformed Seminary (TNARS), have already moved in this direction. This uses resources like online books, lectures on iTunesU, and similar resources, studied with a mentoring model. Vast readings can also be purchased cheaply in online bookstores and can be acquired for free through Google Books, Monergism, CRTA, Third Millennium, and Reformed Books Online to name a few. 

One may argue that online study cannot replace face to face interaction with Biblical scholars. And that very well may be true, but there are solutions for that as well. To begin with, of all the Biblical scholars I have known, the vast majority of them would be honored if someone offered to buy them lunch in exchange for the opportunity to pick their brains for 30 or 40 minutes. In a case like this, have 3-4 questions prepared, tell them that ahead of time and don’t abuse their time. Further, many are willing to answer direct emails or recommend books on a given subject.

Here’s the thing, top-notch scholars do not need to be teaching survey classes. In fact, were I to take a wager, most would rather not teach survey courses but would instead prefer to teach detailed studies of a book of the Bible or of an aspect of theology. Let said scholars teach that which is directly related to their fields of expertise and allow students to gain their basic Biblical knowledge on their own. Let institutions have entrance exams to determine Biblical understanding and let professors teach seminar classes in their expertise. It would change the dynamics quite a bit, but were seminars held for two weeks a quarter, the necessity for relocation would be reduced if not eliminated — two weeks of vacation becomes two weeks of intensive study under a world-respected expert in a given field.

Another option is for communities of like-minded churches to form mini-seminaries to cover at least the basics of the Bible and theology. Truly, mature pastors ought also be able to teach deep and complex points of theology, but I also recognize that “ought” does not yield “is” (the moralistic fallacy). Sadly, pastors often see their seminary education as terminal rather than being a seed-bed and thus do not continue their studies beyond their formal institutional schooling. In the case of a community seminary, this also opens opportunities for members who fill the pews of churches to also gain Biblical and Theological training. This then, also provides a central place that can afford to occasionally pay a respected expert to come and give a seminar on a particular subject.

Not only could such a community seminary be housed in an area church, but if there were sufficient interest, it could be housed by a local Christian school — their leadership is often like-minded with a group of area churches and their classrooms are largely dormant in the evenings. The Christian school in Florida, where I served as a teacher/administrator was regularly having the conversation of what it might look like were we to start a Christian college on campus, hosting evening classes for the community.

The question of Accreditation is often raised. To begin with, one must ask what it is that they are trying to accomplish by accrediting. If it is just a matter of accountability, one can accomplish that with a board made up of Pastors and Elders from the like-minded churches establishing the seminary. In many cases, the real purpose of accreditation has to do with student loans that can be achieved from the government. Yet, if education is done in-house and online, it can be done more or less for free or at a nominal cost if there is enough interest (perhaps investing money to build a common library that the students could use or hiring a part-time or full-time administrative assistant to keep things running smoothly or perhaps even to help with grading. The reality is, what right does the state have to dictate what theological education ought to look like? I say that it has none.

And again, presuming cooperation by like-minded churches, the presbytery or classis of each church involved could be part of the oversight of the “mini-seminary.” This gives them direct oversight of what is being taught and how it is being taught and arguably provides for better cooperation between the churches of the differing denominations as well. In addition to accountability, it provides for a smooth transition into the examining committees of each denominational group for those candidates preparing for their ministerial trials. 

Here’s a novel idea, were churches to really embrace this more decentralized model, for those students who have graduated from all of the preliminary classes and survey courses, then churches create roles and jobs for them in the context of the church so that advanced training can take place outside of the seedbed classroom. This form of mentorship and in-depth teaching in small groups is invaluable to both student and congregation. Part of this internship could also include serving in those roles commonly associated with church secretaries, youth pastors, and visiting pastors — placing trained and Biblically mature men into the life of church leadership alongside of volunteers who have hopefully also made aspects of this Biblical training a part of their lives. That way, men graduating from seminary have already been trained in every level of ministry from making bulletins, organizing activities, visiting with the sick and elderly, evangelizing the lost, and the ministry of the pulpit.

Something needs to be said about degrees in this conversation. And while I am considered by much of my family as a bit of an academic, I think that the American drive toward degrees and titles behind their names is a bit overrated. Brothers, I remind you of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:8 about desiring the title of Rabbi — in modern equivalents, “Doctor.” We are Pastors and Elders and Deacons. These are the titles that God has given to the church. This does not mean that we ought not strive for advanced training, it just means we ought not covet the Title and content ourselves with the title of the office we fill. Interestingly enough, for many years, to be called a “Doctor of the Church” was an honorary title given posthumously based on the contribution that the person made to the teaching of the church. Would that not be a better model? Sadly, honorary degrees tend to be looked down upon in western society, though I think they should be valued over and above any degree that you might earn from an institution.

And so, we have both some critiques and an offer of constructive criticism. Will anything come of it? This, I do not know. I am already involved with TNARS because I believe in what they are doing and would love to see the next step taken. In the meantime, most likely, churches will continue sending their best men away to be trained in a seminary somewhere else without the oversight of the Elders who are sending and without the instruction these men receive benefitting the local church in discernible ways. In addition, they will continue to play into Rome’s worldview that theological training is only for a sub-class in the church, not for everyone — a worldview that is utterly alien to the Reformed faith though it has been embraced by far too many within our communion. Yet, think how much stronger our churches would be were we to have a Biblically-committed seminary in every community?

How to get there? Much of the groundwork has been laid by groups like TNARS and other smaller, “community” seminary models like City Seminary in Sacramento or Indianapolis Theological Seminary. Yet, for the next step to be taken, a working model committed to not following down the path of Trent and the institution must be established…somethign that takes both time and money. So, I suppose I should say, if this idea resonates with you and you want to put your money where your mouth is, then let’s start a conversation. Otherwise, pray for the church as we go into a new year and head towards a new decade.

How to Respond to An Angry Boss

“If the spirit of a ruler rises up against you, your position shall not be put to rest, for calmness will put to rest great sins.”

(Ecclesiastes 10:4)

Both Jewish and Christian translators wrestle with how to handle the translation of this verse…and both groups fall on various sides of the conversation. Literally, the text begins, “If the spirit of the ruler…” — the term in question that is used here is רוּחַ (ruach), or “spirit.” Most are in agreement that what Solomon has in view here is when a ruler or other man of power happens to become angry with you — he loses his temper or is enraged (the idea of that spirit “rising up”). As a result, many translations will render it more idomatically (see the ESV, NASB, NIV, etc… along with Rabbinical Scholars like David Altshuler {Metzudot}). Other translations (see the KJV, YLT, WEB, etc… along with the Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda) render the text more literally as “spirit.”

My purpose here is not to extol the “more literal” or the “more idiomatic” approach to translation issues, though it is an important conversation to have. Instead, it is to point out that the variations we see between the translations we use do impact how we read and understand the text. Every translation, no matter how formal in nature, is an interpretation and when we understand that important truth, I think it helps us have more confidence in the texts we have when we see differences between our preferred translation and the preferred translation of another.

If we get too hung up here on debating the differences in word choice, though, we will lose the more important application that is found in the text. When you make a ruler angry, don’t just leave your position, don’t step down (unless you are commanded to do so by the ruler), but stay firm and stay calm because that calmness will cover over great sins.

Let’s bring this into our own context and then take it back into the ancient world of the Biblical context. How often people, when their employer is upset with them, just throw up their hands and storm off to write a letter of resignation — or worse yet, storm out the door, saying, “I Quit!” What was that country-western song that was popular several decades ago? “You can take this job and …”

Again, don’t hear me wrong, there is a time to resign from a job. If, perhaps, your employer would require you to do something unethical or that is contrary to God’s word, then you have to obey God and not man — in many cases, this would mean stepping down from your job. Yet, in very many cases, that’s not the context of which I speak. I am speaking of that impulsive response — your employer doesn’t like the way you handled a particular situation or client or perhaps your employer is unhappy about some decisions you have made. True, the meetings that follow may prove to be tense, but a level head and a calm demeanor will go a long way toward working through the problems and over time, allow you to earn the respect of those for whom you work.

I am reminded that when I first started as Chaplain for the Christian School in Florida where I served, the Superintendent and the Principal both told me that the scope and sequence for the Bible department was broken and that the Chapel program needed to be overhauled. When I was hired, the Superintendent told me his plan to fix the chapel program. I tested his plan out and realized very quickly that his plan was going to further damage the already broken system and would not restore it to prominence. Because Chapel was almost entirely under my jurisdiction, I put an abrupt end to the model that had been used, restructured the program, and rebuilt it from scratch. 

This did not make my Superintendent happy, it did not make some of the teachers happy, it angered some of the pastors in the community (who were used to coming in and doing their own thing in our Chapel program), and it made some of the students and parents upset. Gratefully, my Superintendent “gave me enough rope to hang myself” and though he did not like my decision, gave me his support. It was a bumpy year and I received not a little bit of grief. Nevertheless, by the grace of God and with the counsel of Solomon in passages like this, I responded gently and with a calm spirit. Further, the whole tone and tenor of Chapel changed for the better and something very healthy (though not perfect) replaced something that was unhealthy and was otherwise broken. “A soft answer turns away wrath,” as Solomon teaches in Proverbs 15:1.

Now, with the principle before us, I encourage you to think about the examples set by Joseph, Daniel, and Esther. Each of these were in positions of power and influence and each had to face challenges brought upon by an impassioned king. Yet, rather than throwing their hands up in the air, they calmly continued doing what God had called them to do and each would be rewarded for their wisdom and tranquility. Shall we not do the same? 

Thanksgiving

As Americans, we have many reasons to spend time giving thanks. We have freedoms that we enjoy, both religious and secular. We have an abundance of wealth and resources here — I’ve spent time overseas in a number of places and even the poor in America have far more resources than the poor elsewhere. We need to be grateful for that, though not use that as an excuse to ignore the poor in our midst. Did our Lord not say that we will always have such as these around us? And don’t the Scriptures demand that we care for those who cannot care for themselves?

In most of our cases, this day is a day where we gather with friends and/or family members and celebrate the blessings we have been given around a table laden with food. I think that it is safe to say that the abundance which most Americans enjoy is unsurpassed in this world. So, as I sit here, reflecting this morning before I put our own family’s turkey in the oven, what concerns me the most is that in America, most people will spend the day oblivious to the great spiritual truths for which we ought to be grateful.

Yes, it is true, that in many homes, some sort of a recited “grace” will be offered, asking God to bless our food. Giving God thanks is proper. In many homes as well, there will be a time where people share those things for which they have been grateful — family, jobs, friends, a warm home, and good food. And again, it is right to be thankful for these things. But is there not more?

Of all the Psalms that we have, only one of them is explicitly listed as a “Psalm for Thanksgiving” or as a “Psalm for Giving Thanks” (depending on your translation). That is Psalm 100. Sure, there are many other psalms that speak of giving thanks, do not misunderstand me, but only one whose superscript contains these words.

What is more interesting than that happens to be what the Psalmist gives thanks for. He does not give thanks for friends and family and food and homes — those things for which we normally give thanks — but he ultimately gives thanks for the character and goodness of God and commands that we respond with worship — not just with a prayer around the table…but with worship.

I wonder what it would look like in America if at every Thanksgiving Table, Psalm 100 was at the heart of the prayer of thankfulness — and it was sincerely prayed. I think that the time of worship would overshadow the time of eating. But that is what I think — I’m the preacher, I’m supposed to think like this. But what would it look like if all of us as Christians thought like this? I wonder if God would bless that with revival in our land or in our communities. How interesting it is when Christians speak about desiring revival, yet never act in such a way that would engender revival in their own lives. In most cases, where we were speaking about someone else, what would we call that? Hypocrisy? Maybe? This year, may we not be hypocrites. May we genuinely desire revival and in doing so, may we reorder our lives in such a way as to make the soil of our hearts and family fertile ground for God’s seed to be planted therein.

The Nations as an Inheritance

“He declares the power of His works to His people;

He gives to them the nations as an inheritance.”

(Psalm 111:6)

I had the joy of bringing the word this past weekend to Ministerios Betesda, a Hispanic congregation in south Florida. This was our second time together for a conference and I was invited to speak of the topic of finding delight through the Study of the Bible as an essential part of the Christian life. As always, the grace and hospitality of these saints was a great blessing (not to mention their cooking!) and I pray that the seeds planted during my time with them will bear good fruit.

It never ceases to amaze me how God brings people together and how radically similar we are once we get beyond superficial matters like the color of one’s skin or the cultural “personalities” that differ from region to region. At this stage of my life, this country-boy from north-eastern Maryland has been privileged to minister to homeless men on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, to easter-European pastors in Ukraine and in Russia, to pastors in Kenya, and now to Hispanic Christians in south Florida; plus I have worked to mentor pastors in Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, and India to name a few other places. My point is not to say, “look at me…” No, just the opposite. My point is to say, “Look at Jesus! And look at Christ’s Church!” 

Now, all border and immigration politics aside, what I find wonderful is the nature of Christ’s church. It exists beyond national boundaries and it exists beyond language boundaries. The church may look a little different and sound a little different based on where you are, but Christ is being glorified as men and women, redeemed from the power of sin and death, come together for worship. 

I remember the first time that God impressed this great truth upon me. I was in eastern Ukraine with a group of Russian-speaking Christians and we went to church. It was my first real trip out of the United States, so I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the language barrier, but then, all of a sudden, I recognized the tune to the hymn these Christians were singing. Right there and then I was struck with the reality of the words of praise that these Christians were lifting up in a language not my own. America is not the salvation of the Church; Christ is — I truly understood that wonderful truth there and then.

The Bible talks a lot about this phrase “the inheritance of the nations” or “the nations as an inheritance.” Too often when we see these words, we think only in terms of land and territory and natural resources…yet this not of which the Bible is speaking. It is speaking of people who are being “shaken out” of the nations to fill the church. And, so, if you want to see God actively fulfilling this promise in Christ — spend some time doing cross-cultural ministry. 

My concern, at least pastorally, is how often people don’t look outside of their context. In the church where I was raised, I heard about missionaries but I never met one — money was just sent to the denomination and they dispersed it as they saw fit, sending missionaries as they saw fit. The idea of anything cross-culture was seen as a novelty and not emphasized. Also, I have known churches to get so focused on their own challenges and problems that they begin to act as if they are the only thing that matters. Yet, the church is far bigger than one regional location.

In addition, I have found that the bad teachings and heresies that we see here in our American context are often the same bad teachings and heresies that plague the church elsewhere. The “prosperity” and new-age movements abound and attack the church not just here but all over. The errors that come along with the hyper-pentecostalism of people like Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer are also leading many astray in other cultural contexts. The goal of church leadership is to build the church up to maturity to ensure that it is not swayed to-and-fro by the winds of human cunning and false doctrine. One thing we have in America — that our brothers and sisters elsewhere do not have — is an abundance of resources — not just money, but good theological literature. If we would strengthen Christ’s church we must not limit our work to our own cultural context — but extend the work to the whole of the Christian church so that men and women of every tribe and language would know the greatness of our God as is taught in our Bibles.

Titles and Doctors in the Church

“You are not to be called “Rabbi;” for you have one teacher and you are all brothers.”

(Matthew 23:8)

In Hebrew, the term “Rabbi” was and is used to someone who is an esteemed teacher in the church — literally, the word means “great one,” which shows you some of the esteem that the Jewish culture attributes to those who handle and teach the word of God. In Christian circles, it is perhaps equivalent to the esteem shown to seminary professors or to those who are respected enough to be called to speak at this conference or at that church here or there.

The Latin equivalent is “Doctor,” which literally means “teacher,” though the Latin text of Matthew 23:8 uses the term Magister (meaning master or ruler) instead of simply translating the Greek in its context. Sometimes that sounds a bit odd to our western ears as we most commonly think of doctors of medicine, not doctors of theology. Even so, doctors of theology were around long before medicine became an organized discipline. 

Now, do not misunderstand what it is that I am about to say. I am not denigrating education, formal or informal, nor would I discourage pastors from continuing their education beyond seminary — I am doing that myself and I serve on the Advisory Board for the North American Reformed Seminary and I teach at a mission seminary in Ukraine. Education is an essential part of the ministry. And while indeed we are men of one book, to become so, we are also men of many books that serve the one book. Regular reading and a growing library is simply par for the course if you are in the Christian ministry. Woe to the pastor that shirks this duty. And it is a pleasurable duty indeed!

Yet, sometimes it is the title of “doctor” that causes men to seek education instead of the title of Doctor being given as a byproduct of the education a man pursues. This, I fear, often leads to pride and a sense of superiority; something that should not be a part of the makeup of the Christian pastor or church leader. And this is of what our Lord is speaking in the verse noted above.

And that leads us to the question…who should award the title of “doctor” to a teacher in the life of the Church? For a number of years I have advocated the Roman Catholic practice of proclaiming someone a “Doctor of the Church” after looking back at his or her contributions to the church itself. If one takes this model, it is the church that awards the title, not the institution. 

In my own context, that then would fall to presbyteries or synods to make such pronouncements that Pastor So-and-So made such a contribution to the establishment of or teaching of the church hat at some point, the church would proclaim him one of their “doctors.”

This, of course, is reflected in the difference between an “earned degree” and an “honorary degree.” And though I would humbly assert that an honorary degree is of more value, it is typically the earned degree that people seek out. Yet, which is more valuable: That which I have done or the church’s recognition of what I have done? I would argue for the second. In a world filled with everyone getting degrees for virtually everything under the sun, it is something to think about.

Is it Really That Important?

“Okay, Pastor Win, lay it all on the table — you preach a lot about doctrine, you teach the Confirmation students a lot about doctrine, you write books about doctrine, and you debate with people over what doctrines are right and what doctrines are wrong — is it really that important? Doesn’t doctrine just divide the church into camps and keep us fighting with each other instead of uniting to work together for good? Wouldn’t it just be easier to focus on what we all agree on rather than drawing lines in the sand?”

I must confess, it would be much easier to just focus on what we all agree on and just affirm that if you love Jesus you must be okay. Humanly, it would be far easier if we could just all get along and be one big happy body. A lot of those people whose doctrine I reject as in error are friends of mine and I care deeply about them. Even furthermore, some of the people whose views I claim are heretical are really nice people and I like them a lot — some are even family members, my own family members. But easier isn’t always right. In fact, easy is often the pathway that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). And that is not what we are called to as the Church.

Here’s the thing. Biblically, my most basic job as a pastor is to train you, the church, so that you are equipped for he work of ministry and to build up the body to “mature manhood” (Ephesians 4:11-13). What does that look like practically? Paul goes on to say that a mature church is not “tossed to and fro” by every wind of doctrine, human cunning, and deceitful schemes (Ephesians 4:14). In fact, Paul writes that the only way a church finds itself built up in love (Ephesians 4:16) is if we grow into this mature manhood.

Now, in the world around us, doctrines abound, some good — mostly bad. Doctrine is taught to us in school (from preschool up), on television, in movies, on the internet, on billboards, and on the radio as we drive down the road. Some of the bad doctrines even proclaim themselves to be Christian. 

So, how will we decipher good from bad so that we are not tossed to and fro? The only way it can be done is by teaching good doctrine. And how do we identify good doctrine? We must measure it by the teaching of the Scriptures — the scriptures alone and the scriptures as a whole. How often I have corrected people on doctrine with the words, “That sounds nice, but that is not what the Bible teaches…” It is not meant to be mean or contentious (okay, maybe a little contentious, but never mean), it is just meant to get us back to our only rule for faith and practice: the Bible.

Yes, there are things that we all agree on — “do unto others as you would have them do to you” or “do not steal.” But then again, both the Mormons and the Muslims I have known over the years would pretty much attest to these things too yet their souls are destined for the fires of Hell. I don’t know about you, but the seriousness of that statement weighs on me. Further, there are people in our families, in our communities, and in our circles of influence that are destined for Hell unless they repent and believe, and all the while, we are happily singing, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” There seems to me a certain disparity in that reality if we are not actively pointing these people toward Christ. Yet, how will we point people such as this to what is true if we do not know what is true in the first place?

Paul writes that the church is to be a pillar and buttress of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). How can we do that unless we are first grounded solidly in the truth of God’s word? How can we do that unless we ground ourselves solidly in Biblical doctrine? How can we do that if the teachers of the church do not commit themselves to teach Biblical doctrine and the members of the church do not commit themselves to studying it? Remember, the purpose of the church is not to make her people feel good while going unnoticed by the community. The purpose of the church is to tear down the strongholds of hell in our midst and the weapon of our warfare is the Word of God — we must train in it.

It’s Not Just a Problem with Kids…

At this stage in my life, I have been in full-time ministry for a little over 12 years and for a decade before that, I served the church in the context of preaching pulpit supply. Over that time, I have filled a lot of pulpits, preached more than a thousand sermons, have taught more Bible studies than I can shake a stick at, and have given oodles of announcements. And, I am still relatively young. 

What strikes me is how rarely people pay close attention to what is said. I can’t tell you how often I hear adults saying, “What? I didn’t know that such and such was happening! You should have let us know.” And then I stand there thinking, “Hmmm… it has been in the church newsletter, announced in several bulletins, has been verbally announced during our announcements time at the beginning of the service, and has even been mentioned from the pulpit…What more do you want, a personalized invitation?” And yeah, I have gone and done that too. More often than I would like to admit, things go in one ear and out the other, and it is not simply matters of announcements, but often it is Biblical truth as well.

As a parent and as a former High School teacher, I have often lamented about kids daydreaming instead of paying attention. But, when you are an adult, you are supposed to put away those childish ways, aren’t you? Think about it, if your boss at work had to give you a personalized invitation any time he wanted you to do something, you would soon find yourself seeking new employment with a not-so-good job reference to follow you around. If after 20 years…heck, if after 2 weeks at a new job, if you had not gained some proficiency at what you are doing, then people would be asking questions about your future at the firm. There is an expectation in the business world that the longer you work in a given job or trade, the more proficient you will become. That’s the world around us; but why not the church as well?

While I can perhaps give the youth a little leeway, you adults should know better. You know that the only way to learn is to listen carefully, take notes of things you want to go back to, and then ask good questions when there are things you don’t understand. But, what percentage of a church does this describe? I estimate that in the last 22 years, I have filled the pulpits of about three dozen churches, and as I think back, only two of those churches come to mind as places where more than 10% of people took notes during the sermons. Interesting…telling…and if you look at the state of the church in America today, well, it is no wonder. 

Why do I give the youth a little more leeway? Well, if they are not being given good examples by the adults around them, what do you expect they will do? Very few will take the initiative to learn if they do not see it modeled and valued by their parents…more importantly, if it is not taught to them by their parents. And, of course, this does not just apply in church, but it applies to personal devotions and Bible study at home and applying the truths of God into our lives. And, while our jobs may depend on how closely we listen to our earthly bosses; your growth in faith depends on how closely you listen to and understand the Word of Christ, your eternal King. How much more weighty the latter is than the former.

So, folks, it’s not just kids who often don’t pay attention in church services; its adults. It’s not just a kids’ problem, its a sinful-people problem that we need to put to death. The good news is that the solution is the same no matter how young or old you are: pay close attention and take good notes. Over the years, I have often been accused of “preaching over people’s heads.” The wonderful thing that I have found is that those who start paying close attention and taking notes always come back to me and say, “I understand so much more of what you are talking about now that I am doing this.” 

One more thing… Peter writes that gaining knowledge is part of our sanctification process (2 Peter 1:5), so as we learn, we grow more and more into the character of Christ. So, why wouldn’t we apply ourselves even more greatly to learning the deep things of God than the fleeting things of this earth? Sanctification is a good and desirable thing…isn’t it?

The Church is not a Circus

Okay, I need to confess something up front…I never much cared for the circus as a kid. It just wasn’t my schtick. Sorry. And if you are a lover of the circus, more power to you, though it seems that there are fewer and fewer traveling circuses going around. But, never mind you that…if you are desperate for the circus to come around, there are plenty of churches that are trying to fill the bill and put on the “greatest show on earth” all for your viewing enjoyment. 

Am I being sarcastic? Yes. And then, in a sense, no. Churches, especially the big ones, do some pretty loony things to get people to come in the door. For example, over the years, I have seen stories where the staff dressed up as professional wrestlers and ran around, well, doing what those folks do. I have read accounts where churches have hired designers from Disney to create interactive kids’ spaces and programs. Many use sound and lights and pyrotechnics and I have witnessed churches bringing in strong-men to “bend bars for Jesus.” Shall we mention the old, let’s throw a pie in the face of the preacher to increase attendance model? Gimmicks. 

And, while all of these are extremes, sometime the residual effect is that people in our congregations want to grasp a little of that excitement. For example, while I have no objection to contemporary hymnody and “praise songs” being used in church (at least those that are scripturally sound), I do have a problem with the “praise team” putting on a rock-n-roll concert as part of the service. In doing so, they draw attention to themselves and not toward Christ. The same can be said for the “cool” pastors who give a basic moralistic, feel-good message that is theologically and exegetically shallow. We worship an infinite God who has revealed himself in his word, shall we not expect that word to go deeper than we ever imagined? If we are mature, do we really need the pastor to hold our hand on personal application? Would it not be better for him to focus on digging out new treasures from the depths of this Word that help us appreciate the character of our God even more?

And that gets me to my point. What do you come to worship expecting it to be? If you expect entertainment, you are in the wrong place. True, there ought to be much about worship that should be enjoyable to you, but you are there to draw near to God by carefully attending to His word. The sermon should not tickle your ears, but should instruct you on the character of God and exhort you to repent of your sins and live in a way that honors that character. My grandfather (a Methodist minister) used to say, “If you have not stepped on toes in the sermon you have not preached.” There is great truth to that. Entertainment tends to leave you as you are — just perhaps more at ease from the stresses of life. The worship of God’s people is designed to be a tool to conform you into the image of Christ.

Yet, I look at the landscape of the “church” around us and I scratch my head. Exhortation and instruction seem to be only secondary and occasional byproducts of their approach. I see those praise bands practicing for hours to get their “set” down pat. I know of many pastors who practice their sermons with an audience repeatedly during the week to make it come across just so when it is delivered. In fact, many of them purchase sermon outlines that are pre-prepared. All they have to do is to personalize them and adapt them to their context — their job then largely is that of an actor performing a role and not as the shepherd-teacher of Christ’s church. Of course, many of these places have long ceased trying to be Christ’s church in anything but name and have imbibed of health-wealth and word-faith heresies to tickle those itching ears.

Pastors, you are teachers and exhorters, not performers. We need to be prepared but not polished. And we need to do our grunt-work in the Text of God’s word. It needs to work on us and get into our souls before we can ever expect that it will get into the souls of our people. Musicians, like the pastor, be prepared for what it is that you will play on Sunday morning; you are leading God’s people in worship. That said, it is not a performance and errors will be forgiven by Christians who have any sort of spiritual maturity. 

And folks in the pews — parishioners as some denominations would refer to you  — do not sit passively expecting to be entertained. You are not there to be entertained. You are there to actively engage in the worship of the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ. That does not mean that you need to put on a show…in fact, just the opposite. But it does mean you must participate. You must sing with the people of God — do not just stand there reading the words out of the hymnal and praying that the hymn is done soon — and do not bawl over the people around you as to draw attention to yourself. Sing with the people of God in their worship.

In times of corporate prayer, pray with the one leading the prayer. Ask yourself, “Do I really agree with the petitions of this prayer and if I don’t, in what ought I repent?” In times when the scripture is being read, ask yourself, “Do I understand what has been read and what can I learn about God and my relationship to him, from these words?” And when the sermon is being preached, pay careful attention. If you tend to get lost, take notes and think of questions that you might ask the pastor afterwards. And, before you come to worship, read over the passage your pastor will be preaching from, pray for him (and you), and again, formulate questions that you would like to have answers to from the passage — there is a good chance that he will address many if not most of these things…listen for them. And if he does not answer all of your questions, ask him afterwards, he will find it a thrill and a joy to engage in this kind of dialogue.

Oh, and if I have a pet peeve, it can be found in one of two complaints…either: “I am not being fed in worship” or “everything the pastor says goes over my head.” First of all, it is only the small children at the table that need to be fed; older children and adults feed themselves — Christians should strive to do that when the table has been set in the pastor’s sermon. Second of all, while that is typically meant as a complaint against the pastor, it speaks far more about the character of the one who is complaining…clearly they have not prepared themselves for worship nor have they actively engaged in worship during the service. In other words, those who say such things have imbibed some bad ideas about what worship is to be somewhere along the lines and unless they are open to correction, we will see them drift toward those who will tickle their ears instead of convicting their hearts. Sad.

Declining becomes Refining

Over the last decade, many traditional churches in America have experienced a decline in attendance and the membership that corresponds. Of course, much of that decline is in the wake of the mega-church movement that is built around big entertainment and celebrity pastors while also watering down their theology to make it palatable to all. There are also many small, Biblically faithful, churches and denominations that are growing, and my observation such is one of the healthiest things to see in the Christian church in America. These small groups tend to be theologically very narrow and the people attracted to them know what they believe and why…something a little harder to find in an older, established church.

My grandfather was a small church pastor back in the 1950’s and 60’s and something that he used to say is that sometimes in the life of the church you do addition by subtraction. Of course, my grandfather also used to say that sometimes church problems can only be solved by a few funerals…ouch…of course, no matter whether we are willing to admit to it or not, there is some truth to both of these statements. 

While most pastors are disheartened by declines, whether seasonal or otherwise, times of decline can be healthy in the life of the church if you know how to approach them. More importantly, they can be learning times if you are patient enough and disciplined enough to learn from them. 

The most prominent thing that comes along with decline is that it exposes indwelling sin that has not been dealt with by the Elders of a congregation. Many of these sins simply run under the surface in times when the pews are filled and activities in the church abound. People turn a blind eye because everything is going well and why would anyone want to stir up trouble? Yet, that is one of the jobs of the overseers of the church — to hold people accountable to their Christian vows and to living a Christian life. Wasn’t Elijah referred to as the “Troubler of Israel” by wicked king Ahab (1 Kings 18:17)? Surely you don’t think that Elijah earned this title by flattering the folks around him.

In times of decline, though, these indwelling sins tend to come to the surface. And here is the key thing to understand, if this indwelling sin is not addressed when a church has declined, it will undermine any future growth and break down the foundation of the church. This kind of indwelling sin may be a tendency to gossip, to slander, to manipulate events to get your own way, to pursue personal sins inside or outside of the church context, or just the desire to tear someone else down rather than to build them up. None of this belongs in the Christian church or in the Christian life. How fragile churches become when the Elders do not actively practice church discipline.

Another opportunity that comes with decline is focus. One of the trends that has harmed the church greatly over the last generation has been that of ecumenicism. Now, do understand that the principle that Christians should not break fellowship over every nook and cranny of their theology is an important one, so I am not advocating a kind of hyper-fundamentalist retreatism either. But ecumenicism has become more of an agreement by “least common denominator.” So if people say that they love Jesus, they get welcomed to the table with open arms even if who they mean by Jesus is radically different than who the Bible means by Jesus. 

Instead, churches ought to know what they believe and why…and dig deeply into those theological roots. That is the only way not to be swayed by the winds of every human invention and doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). We might not break fellowship with every theological group, church, or denomination, but if we look carefully at what some of these groups say or teach, we will find ourselves breaking fellowship with a number of them. And in doing so, distinctive principles to which a church holds become prominent. Emphasizing distinctive teachings will tend to drive some away, so while the church is in decline anyway, one might as well clarify what the Bible teaches and why.

Two of the marks of the true Church of Jesus Christ are church discipline and the faithful preaching of the whole council of God. If a church has not been doing one or the other well, decline can be the optimal time to repent of that error and begin practicing them. Not only will you honor your Savior, but then when the church draws new people, many of them will come into a healthy context and will come for the right reasons. The decline becomes a matter of refinement rather than something to lament.