Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Love That Cures

"And we urge you, brothers and sisters,
warn those who are idle and disruptive,
encourage the disheartened,
help the weak,
be patient with everyone."
1 Thessalonians 5:14

"Loving others" is the mantra of Christianity and with good reason. Scripture is adamant that love, above all else, be the mark of a true Christian. We can easily see this in the Old Testament Law, where God declared through Moses "love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:18). In other words, we are required to love because God is God, and he is a God of love. Jesus repeats this message in the New Testament, telling his disciples "My command is this: love each other as I have loved you" (John 15:12) and "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34, 35). Scripture even tells us that if we don't love other believers, we cannot truly be saved: "whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar" (1 John 4:20).

But what does it mean to love a fellow believer?

Well, there are all kinds of theories, but perhaps one of the most pervasive, and most damaging, is what we could call accommodating love. This is the kind of 'love' that desires a relationship with the other person above the spiritual growth of a brother or sister in Christ.

Let me give you an example. Say you've been going to the same church for several years and have become good friends with a number of believers. One believer in particular has become especially close to you. For several years you have shared life together, been in each others homes, attending Bible studies together, and helped encourage each other during times of emotional crisis.

There is just one problem, this brother has a serious problem with arrogance and pride. Or to slightly change the scenario, perhaps this brother has legalistic attitudes and judges other who don't adhere to his personal preferences. Or perhaps he disparages his wife and speaks of her in demeaning ways. Whatever the issue may be, this is a dear brother in Christ but you are fully aware of a spiritual weakness in his life. Yet you've never said anything to him about this.

Ever.

Perhaps you are afraid if you say something he would leave the church or even end the relationship. I know many pastors who think this way. Many years ago I became aware that a man in the community was involved in an affair. He was a member of another congregation and in a conversation with me, bragged openly about an affair with a younger women. Not listening to my counsel, I sat down with his pastor and informed him of the situation. After I was done, the pastor looked at me and said "thanks, but I'm not sure what you expect me to do about this." Somewhat shocked, I replied, "Well, I simply expect you to address a spiritual sin in the life of one of your members". To my horror he replied, "Well if I did that he would leave the church."

Is this love? 

If anything, it is a selfish form of love, more appropriately called lust, because you value your friendship with this person more than you value them as a fellow sibling in Christ. You care very little about their relationship to God, but only the enjoyment you receive from the friendship. You've just gotten really good at hiding your selfishness under the thin veneer of Christian language. Throw in a couple of Bible verses about love, and you all set.

But is it really loving to allow a weaker brother or sister in Christ trapped in a pattern of sin to go unchallenged? Is it loving to allow this person to walk through life ineffective for Christ and undermining, by his sin, the very Gospel he claims to cherish? Is it loving to allow such a person to go to their death unwarned of the righteous judgement that is in store for them unless they repent?

The Christian way to love is to administer healing love. In olden days, pastors were sometimes referred to as "curate of souls". This comes from the Latin word curatus, which referred to one who sought to cure or heal someone's soul. A modern equivalent would be "counselor", which is one who attends to, provides for, cares about, and seeks to bring healing to someone who is troubled in soul and spirit. Perhaps the greatest compliment I ever received as a pastor was when a congregant, who was encouraging someone else to come to me for pastoral counseling, told her "don't go see Pastor Josh unless your willing to change, because he will always take you to God's Word."

In other words, Christians are not to treat other believers like they are in a hospice ward: bandaging wounds, administer painkillers, and stupifying immobilized believers so they can live their lives (if it can be called life) in complacency. Instead, we are called to bring the healing of the Gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are spiritually wounded. Sometimes this means helping them cut out the spiritual cancer in their lives. Sometimes it involves a difficult intervention with a brother addicted to his pride. Other times it involves reminding a sister of God's great and comforting promises. It always involves a loving willingness to open God's Word and point them towards God's healing truths.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Good 'Ole Days

"Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?' 
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this."
- Ecclesiastes 7:10

Remember when things were, well, better? We often hear people talking about the wonder of yesteryear. For some, this is the smell of grandma's freshly baked bread or the slight cherry tobacco aroma of grandpa's beard. For others, it was a time when there was less crime and more neighbors who were friendly and caring. Or perhaps back in those days when kids were more well behaved and more respectful to their parents.

Christians think this way about matters of faith, too. Some bemoan the present state of worship music, longing for "better" times when the church sang the hymns they knew as youth. Or perhaps they long for the days when all the church men wore stylish suits and all the ladies wore pretty dresses and even prettier hats. You hear people say "well, my generation was a generation of prayer", or "the church used to be more reverent for God when I was growing up."

For others, they long for a past when our country was "better" and "more Christian". After all, our great-grandparents didn't have to deal with moral issues such as the acceptance of gay marriage, abortion, or rampant (and public) sexualization of culture. Most people went to church on Sundays, and men didn't cuss in front of women, children, or the preacher.

Still others have enshrined ages of the past as being the doctrinal standard. I know entire churches that insist on using the 1689 Baptist Confession as their official church statement of faith. I know others for whom the era of Jerry Falwell & D. James Kennedy marks the the epitome of biblical faithfulness.

The real problem here is twofold: First, we are specifically commanded in Scripture not to speak this way. Second, it simply isn't true. The past was never what we try to make it out to be.

Ecclesiastes 7:10a offers us a command: "Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?'" I admit I am not the most brilliant individual who ever graced a pulpit. But I can recognize a command when I see one. Solomon is not even offering us a suggestion: "Hey, it might be a good idea not to say...etc". He is straight to the point: "Do not say". Simply put, Christians are not allowed to talk this way. God doesn't want his people to have their gaze stuck backwards, because it distracts us from our current spiritual assignment. Paul reminds us that we are to "make the most of every opportunity right now" (Eph 5:16), because time is short and we are surrounded by much evil. A soldier on the battlefield is no good if, instead of taking the fight to the enemy, he sits in the grass moaning about how great life was before the battle. When we demonize the present and idealize the past, we are in disobedience to the command of our King.

But Scripture also gives a reason for this command. Frankly, the idealization of the past is based on a lie. In Ecclesiastes 7:10b, Solomon continues his thought: "For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." Believing that former days were better is foolish. Utterly foolish. It is based on a faulty presupposition and an inadequate understanding of sin.

Nostalgia is a seductive liar. The church of your past was not more holy than the church of today. The America of the past was not more "Christian" than the America of today. Sin isn't more of a problem today than it was a couple of generations ago. Satan was just as much the "ruler of this world" in 1850 as he is in 2014. 

The problem with such thinking is that is a ploy of the devil. Such thoughts creep into our minds, robbing us of the thing we are supposed to be yearning for. The Devil would LOVE for you to spend all your effort trying to recapture some spiritual experience of the past instead of living as one destined for Heaven. But the apostle Paul is emphatic: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way" (Phil 3:13b-15a). The Gospel forbids us to look backward to some mythical golden era of our past, but to look forward to Heaven, that "city whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10).

I love much of my past. There were some spiritual experiences that greatly shaped me, and I praise God for them. But the past is just that. The past. It is't heaven, far from it, and not an ounce of me ever wishes to return to some bygone era. Not in a million years. It simply isn't the direction my King is calling me. Soldiers of Christ aren't supposed to retreat, but press forward.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, forget what is behind. Press forward.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You're Disturbing My Worship

"You are disturbing my worship". Have you heard fellow Christian brothers or sisters make that statement? Have you yourself ever uttered it? Perhaps you've heard a version of it: "they are disturbing my worship", "that family is disturbing my worship", "that song leader is disturbing my worship", "that style of music is disturbing my worship", etc.

Forget for a moment the inherent paganism in such a statement. Yes, paganism. When we say "I can't worship to that kind of music" or "I can't worship in an environment like this", how different is that from the pagans of old who would need to perform the "correct" magical incantation to achieve their desired state of spiritual ecstasy? As pagan as that mindset is, there is an even deeper problem.

The older I get in the faith, and the more time I spend in God's holy Word, the more I am convinced that the reason we become so easily disturbed in our worship is because we have been giving the wrong offering in the first place. We've made worship about ourselves, instead of making it about God and others. Sadly, this problem is as old as humanity itself.

In the early chapters of Genesis, in the very first human family, two brothers came together for worship. One of them, Abel, came with a right heart and offered God a sacrifice of praise. The other brother, Cain, also offered God a sacrifice. The only difference was that Cain offered what he wanted to offer. Not only did he care little about what God actually wanted, he also cared nothing at all about his brother.

Across the worship spectrum, whether it be traditional or contemporary, I hear many Christians complain about worship. Many of my Christian friends complain about the worship styles in their churches. Old people complain. Teenagers complain. Mothers complain. Pastors complain. My neighbors in my community, who attend other churches, complain. And yes, even within my own congregation such complaints are heard every now and again. Is there a church in America that is really free from this evil spirit? At the center of all of this is the heart of Cain, an individual who is so obsessed about what he or she wants. "True worship be damned" (such is the attitude), "both God and fellow Christian must take only what I have to offer."

How different is the attitude Scripture commands us to have. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17). Or consider 1 Peter 2:9, which commands us to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." This means, first and foremost, that in all circumstances and situations we are called to declare God's worth. So yes, you can worship with the baby 3 rows in front screaming. You can worship even though some teens up front are raising their hands and slightly swaying to the music. You can worship if a vocalist is singing off tune. You can worship if the song leader is using a style you don't care for. You can worship if the music is loud. You can worship if someone dances in the aisle. You can worship if the organist is playing so slow you are convinced she might be dead. You can worship if the guitarist is wearing flip flops. You can worship if they are singing old hymns with painfully archaic 17th century English.

You can, but like Cain you might be choosing not to.

Thankfully, there is another model we are supposed to follow. Consider how Paul and Silas could worship God with joy after being stripped, tortured, and shackled in iron chains. Or even better, consider how Jesus was able to praise the Father on the eve of his arrest, knowing the horror that awaited him. They didn't need the "right" music or the "correct" atmosphere. True worship is a "living sacrifice", meaning that it only becomes an offering acceptable to God when it ceases to be about what you enjoy.

Has something disturbed your worship? Then my dear sibling in Christ, it is time to face an uncomfortable truth. The only one disturbing worship is the one who is being disturbed by worship.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Safely in His Arms

Some time ago I was talking with a devout Muslim about the Islamic religion. During that conversation I asked him about his view of eternal life and salvation. As he was describing his beliefs, which included the need to be fully devoted to Allah, he added this comment: "of course, none of us can know for sure if we will even be accepted."

Imagine that! Imagine dedicating yourself to a religion and to a supposed "god" who demanded total obedience but refused to give any assurance of acceptance. And now think about how this is radically different from the message of the Gospel. God, the one revealed in the Bible, is a God of truth. He is one that makes promises and forms relationships. He is one that gives assurances and provides a way to be saved.

Dear believer in Jesus Christ, God wants you to be fully assured of your salvation. In 1 John 5:11-13, the apostle John wrote: "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life." 

This is why, throughout the Bible, the message of the Gospel is communicated in clear, forthright terms. For example in Romans 10:9, Paul tells us plainly "if you declare with your mouth 'Jesus is the Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." He does not say "you got a really good shot at being saved" or "you might be saved". He says emphatically, "you will be saved." 

Jesus himself was clear on this point: "I give them eternally life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28-29). In other words, our salvation is guaranteed precisely because God is the strongest person in the universe! The apostle Paul understood that the promise of salvation rested fully on the power of the living God. In Romans 8:38-39 he writes, "for I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Still, some believers, in what can only be described as utter folly, insist that their salvation is not guaranteed. They place needless weights upon their own shoulders, having convinced themselves that they somehow might lose that which the Father has given. But salvation isn't a gem that we frantically clutch in our hand, afraid that we might lose it or that it might one day be stolen. It is a seal stamped onto our hearts by the Holy Spirit, a mark upon us that cannot be removed. Martin Llyod-Jones, preaching on the inability of any person or thing to separate us from God's love, once wrote, 
"Yet some people foolishly say 'Ah yes, but he does not say that you yourself can not do it.' I see, you are the great exception, are you? You are the one in the universe who is stronger than God and stronger than the principalities and powers, and the height and the depth, or any other creature. My dear friends, you are included. Nothing, not even yourself, can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots

The Bible promises that “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Peter, seeking to calm his own congregation, said “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange was happening to you.” John, who if tradition is correct was boiled alive in oil and banished to Patmos, also told us “do not be surprised that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Paul recognized that “we are afflicted in every way” (2 Cor 4:8). Later, he urged a young Timothy to obediently “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12).

How is it then that our churches are filled with people who have no stomach for the fight? There is within the visible church far too many “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” (to borrow an image from Thomas Paine) who shrink at the first moment of crisis or difficulty. Where in modern American Christianity is there the mindset of Pilgrim’s Progress, which depicts the spiritual life as one of great struggle and labor until Christian arrives safe in the Celestial City? Certainly, as Job testifies, the days of every human being are full of trouble (Job 14:1), but the believer in Christ endures yet another difficulty. We are, after all, at war with the god of this age. Have we really come to believe that Satan has embraced pacifism?

As Thomas Watson once reminded his congregation, “a soldier does not have his soft bed or daily fare, but undergoes tedious marches, and such is the Christian life.” This Puritan pastor decried those he called “delicate, silken Christian.” God has called us to stand and fight against our sin and the devil’s rebellion, under his banner and obedient to his leadership. With the Old Testament saints we are to recognize that “God is with us; he is our leader” (2 Chron 13:12). The King James renders this as “captain”, though the Hebrew literally means “head”. He is "on top" and the rightful ruler and therefore the guarantor of our victory.

Until that day of final victory comes, fight the good fight of faith. Don't grumble or act perplexed when difficulty comes. Despite what peddlers of false peace may promise, you were never intended to have 'your best life now'. Recognize your "fiery trials" for what they are...the endurance of a good soldier and servant of Christ living in a lost world at war with our Captain. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stop abusing Philippians 4:13

In 2011, Hollywood director Sean McNamara released the film Soul Surfer, the true life story of Bethany Hamilton who suffered a horrific shark attack while surfing off the coast of Hawaii. It was a wonderful film with a positive, inspiring message. For Christians, the film was especially meaningful because Bethany and her family are devout believers, which while not an overt theme, nevertheless came through in the film in a positive way.

I want to be very clear on this: I absolutely LOVED this film.

Thumbs up! Rent it. Watch it. Own it. The acting is delightful, the special effects are well done, the camera work excellent, and the plot is inspirational. While not a "Christian movie" per se, it is an inspirational story about a young girl who happens to be Christian. Far from mocking her beliefs, her faith actually features as a key component in the story line. I praise God for this film.

But yes, I am going to use it as a negative example. Just know I'm not a hater.

One scene caught my attention. While Bethany lay recovering in the hospital after the accident, she asks her father if she will ever be able to surf again. Her dad, play by Dennis Quaid no less (awesome) quotes Philippians 4:13, "You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength". (OK, the writers of the film replaced "Christ" with "Him", but let's not get sidetracked). In essence, he was saying 'yes daughter, with God at your side you can one day surf again.'

Philippians 4:13 is a popular verse. Tim Tebow, a young Christian man with loads of integrity, regularly placed that reference on the black strip under his eye (alternating with other verses such as John 3:16). The verse is quoted by coaches giving pre-game pep talks and by moms encouraging their little girls to perform well for ballet recitals. Well meaning adults, when counseling teenagers with low self-esteem and who are convinced they will never amount to anything, quote this verse to convince the despondent teen that anything is possible.

The meaning is clear: You can accomplish anything. You can be anything. With God at your side, the world is at your fingertips!

Except, that's not at all what the verse means. Not even close. Let's look at in in context:
"...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." - Philippians 4:11b-13
Paul's letter to the Philippians is one of his Prison Letters, so titled because he wrote it while in prison. In fact, he was quite literally chained a Roman guard. Despite the miserableness of the situation, Paul stay positive. In Philippians 1:12-13 he even wrote, "Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel. As a result, it has become clear to the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ." He goes on in the next verse to say that because of his imprisonment, other believers have become more bold in "proclaiming the Gospel without fear". 

Imprisonment in the Roman empire wasn't a picnic. There was no minimum security prison for white collar criminals, complete with ping pong tables and free college classes. The conditions were brutal. Often they wouldn't feed or clothe prisoners, which is why Paul was so thankful to the believers for sending provisions. Chained to a Roman soldier, Paul would have been beaten, abused, and humiliated.

But Paul was happy. Joyous even.

This wasn't because he felt he could realize any potential or accomplish any task. In fact, there wasn't many tasks he was even considering. Except maybe survival. For Paul, the presence of Christ in his life wasn't the promise that he could accomplish anything, but rather that he could endure anything. In all situations, he could find contentment. No matter the hardship. No matter how far down the rabbit hole one fell, Christ remained his strength. The devil would not win. Sinners would never ultimately triumph. His faith faith and his joy could remain as strong as ever, regardless of what the Enemy threw at him. He could endure to the end.

No promise of freedom was given. In fact, for all he knew he might be killed the next day after enduring a brutal beating, but the point was that he could endure. No matter what, the joy that he found in Christ couldn't be broken.

Paul learned this lesson and he is inviting us to learn it as well. Whatever the situation, no matter how horrific it may be, we can endure.

As far as the movie was concerned, I actually found it very inspirational that a young girl would overcome all odds and surf again. I admire the strength and resolve. I find the dedication and 'can't-keep-me-down' attitude praiseworthy. The movie has much to celebrate.

But surfing was never the promise God made to her. The promise was, despite her circumstances, that Christ was with her. She could endure. She could find joy.

From everything I've read of Bethany Hamilton, God kept his promise to her: her faith remained strong. That's the real story.

Oh, by the way, it just so happens that he let her surf again, too.





Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Stop abusing Psalm 37:4

"...and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Psalm 37:4b

Mr and Mrs Jones come up to the pastor on a Sunday morning, their 6 year old girl Susie in tow. "Pastor", Mrs Jones says, "Susie has a question about Heaven that we couldn't answer".

"What's your question, Susie?" the pastor asks.

"When I go to heaven will my dog Fido be there? I love my dog and I want to be in heaven with him."

The pastor answers, "Well, I do know the Bible promises that God "will give you the desires of your heart", so if you desire Fido, then God will make sure he is in Heaven with you.

Now listen. I'm not mocking the question. This little girl clearly loves her dog and we can all understand how important the question is to a 6 year old. Also, I'm certainly not mocking the principle that God will richly bless us in Heaven. What I am addressing is the complete and under disregard for the meaning of Psalm 37:4. This is one of a handful of Bible passages that we treat as if it were a giant spiritual blank check and by doing so act as if the Trinity is the cosmic version of the "Make a Wish Foundation" and as if Jesus were Santa Clause.

Once when I was discussing this verse with a fellow Christian, after saying something similar to what I've said above, I was curtly interrupted with a question: "So you're denying that God is making us a promise?" The question was asked with obvious resentment. "Well, I for one believe that God means what he said and always keeps his promises."

So do I. The question is what has God promised? Has he really promised to give us anything we desire?

The problem with quoting half a verse is that you only quote half a verse. Look at what the entire verse actually says:
"Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."
This verse is indeed promising something. God will give you your heart's desire if your heart desires God. This promise isn't a spiritual blank check which will allow you to get an Xbox, new friends, an attractive spouse, or the guarantee of a beloved pet for all of eternity. It is not the promise of a better paying job, or reconciliation with a family member who remains bitter towards you, or a better health care package that will cover your spouse's cancer treatments.

No, it is something far, far, far better.

It is the promise of the presence of God. The reason this is so important is because God's presence changes everything. Both Moses and Joshua tried to show Israel that God's presence brings strength and courage.  "Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9; see Deut 31:6). The apostle Paul clung to this promise so tenaciously that he wrote "I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).

The coming of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the promise God made in Psalm 37:4. As the Old Testament saints delighted in God, he gave them their desire by sending Jesus Christ. For this reason, Jesus was first called Immanuel, which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). This promise is realized anew in the heart of everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus Christ.

If you desire God, he will give you himself. Richly, freely, and without restraint. That is a promise he always keeps.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

I care very little if I am judged by you

"I care very little if I am judged by you...."
I Corinthians 4:3a

A number of years ago an angry congregant came in my office with a list of my 'faults'. I knew tension had been building for some time but wasn't aware of the specific issues. Almost as soon as he sat down, he blurted out "I don't have any respect for you!"

Not exactly what a pastor wants to hear, but sadly not an unheard of conversation, either.

"What's the problem, brother?" I asked.

"For starters, it's the way you keep your desk", he replied.

OK. Guilty. If you have ever been into my office you will know I have a messy desk. The old adage rings true, "a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind." I agree. My mind is so cluttered that I have a hard time navigating it most of the time. If that frustrates you, imagine what it does to me!

"I believe a pastor should be professional and have a respectable office", he added.

Now the curious thing is that I had just been at this brother's place of work the week prior, though he was out of the office when I stopped by. I had planned on leaving a note but his desk was so cluttered I figured he would never find it. When I pointed this out, he became even more furious.

"How dare you?" He exclaimed. "That is not the same thing, you are a supposed to be a man of God, and I believe a man of God should have a clean office!"

We talked for another 45 minutes or so before he eventually stormed out of my very messy office. Throughout the meeting this brother's tone was angry and biting, especially as he listed all the immoral and sinful qualities he associated with having a messy office. I wish I could tell you I convinced him he was being silly. I wish even more I could tell you I shrugged it off and went about my day with confidence.

The reality is that I wept.

After he left I shut off the office lights, sat on the floor behind my cluttered desk, pulled my knees up to my chest, and started to weep. His words and accusations, which I knew were foolish and false, still hurt. The anger in his eyes towards me cut like a knife. The loss of relationship and friendship felt like a hole in my chest.

While it was right to mourn the loss of a relationship, the reality is that I suffered from the same problem as my brother. To him, my messy desk had become a very big thing. To me, his accusation had become a very big thing. In reality, both were small & insignificant. And we were both being disobedient to Scripture by treating a small thing as if it were a big thing.

In 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, the Apostle Paul states two basic facts. First, the Corinthians were supposed to regard him as "a servant of Christ". Second, many at that church refused to do so (vv.2-5). Paul was being judged. He wasn't being judged according to the standards of God, which is always appropriate. In fact, in chapter 5 Paul makes perfectly clear that we are to judge (i.e. confront) other believers who are engaging in sinful behavior. But the problem here was that Paul was being judged according to human standards.

He wasn't Apollos. He wasn't Peter. He wasn't Jesus. And some in the Corinthian church despised him simply on those grounds.

In love, Paul directly and bluntly confronts the situation: "I care very little if I am judged by you." A more literal translation would read, "It is a very small thing to be judged by you." 

I see many in the Christian community breaking under the weight of not meeting someone's expectations. I am not talking about when a dear brother or sister in Christ lovingly confronts us over a sin issue (oh how I pray that such confrontations continue and that we would all have the humility of accepting this much-needed rebuke). But I am talking about the needless guilt we feel when we don't measure up to someone's personal, arbitrary standards of how to live.

This doesn't mean that we don't listen to such criticism. But it does mean, ultimately, that the standards, opinions, and judgments leveled against us by others isn't that big of a deal. It is small. It is tiny. It has no bearing on eternity. It has no effect on our holiness. It is something that is fine to think about but need not occupy much of our thoughts.

But there is a very big thing that is supposed to occupy our attention. In v.4, Paul says "it is the Lord who judges me". He wasn't being flippant. He wasn't saying "I don't have to listen to you and I can live anyway I want." But he was saying that pleasing other people isn't nearly as important as pleasing God.

Paul chose to spend his mental and emotional energy living in a way that pleased the Father. Everything else was small, very small, in comparison.




Monday, July 7, 2014

Stop abusing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

No this isn't a post defending tobacco or booze. Not really, anyway.

But we've all heard it. Well meaning Christians challenge their fellow believers with these words: "do you not know your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit...?" Or often these folks skip right to v.20, "You were bought with a price. Therefore honor God with your body." 

We hear this verse quoted about everything from smoking tobacco, to consuming GMO corn products, to eating hamburgers. Joel Olsteen recently published an online devotional claiming "when you take care of yourself by eating properly and getting enough sleep, you are honoring the Lord with your Body." Elsewhere he uses this verse to argue against eating bacon and other greasy foods, saying to do so is "disobedient".

There's just one problem. 1 Corinthians 6 isn't talking about tobacco, greasy foods, soda pop, or the failure to get a good night's rest. It's talking about sexual immorality. Let's look at the passage in context (vv.12-20):
12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 
But despite its clear context, this passage is used to support the notion that if a particular activity has bad health effects, it must be 'sinful' because it hurts your body. Of course, there are two huge problems with that. First (and less important), such a position is inherently self-defeating as no one can live it out consistently. Everything we consume ultimately hurts us. We live in a world tainted by sin and even the water we drink is full of impurities. Don't get me started on ice cream or chocolate. Secondly (and far more importantly), God says no such thing. 

Listen, I'm not saying it is wise to eat GMO corn products (personally, I don't have an issue). Frankly, if you want to smoke cigarettes I think your an idiot. You might be a righteous and Christ-like idiot, but an idiot nonetheless. But your morality shouldn't necessarily be called into question (see note below). If you want to sip a little booze or smoke an occasional pipe, I'll even defend your Christian liberty to do so (and might even get out one of my pipes and join you). But just to be clear, I would probably also make sure you understood the biblical commands not to be drunk/addicted to anything but the Holy Spirit, because that would be dishonoring the Lord with your body as God has declared drunkenness/addiction to be sinful. [Note: this is why cigarettes are problematic, because they are addictive. If you can't go a day, or an hour, without a cigarette you are in sin].

1 Corinthians 6 is not saying that something is wrong or sinful because of the effect that particular behavior has upon the body, but rather because the behavior itself is sinful and abhorrent to God. God nowhere declared tobacco or greasy hamburgers to be an affront to his holiness. He has claimed that running around sleeping with prostitutes or other people other than your spouse is such an affront.

See, that was the problem in the Corinthian church. They were making a mockery of the Gospel and of their own personal lives. They claimed with their mouth to believe in Jesus and to have surrendered their entire lives to God, but they were still using their bodies to engage in the same kind of sinful behavior that they had been saved from. This would not do.

This is why Paul told them in vv.9-10, "do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." 

In v.11 he goes on to remind them that they had been freed from that behavior, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." 

Now, you might strongly believe that no self-respecting Christian should smoke any kind of tobacco. You might really believe eating a greasy hamburger is a sin. Maybe you're on a crusade against margarine, whole milk, or chocolate (seriously, why chocolate?). But unless your claiming God has given you additional divine revelation, it would be nice if you would at least admit your just giving your own opinion and not speaking for the Lord.

You might be able to make a wisdom case against using such products. You just can't make a moral one.



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bryan College: Three Points to Remember

I love Bryan College. It is my school. True, I didn't end up graduating from Bryan (I finished my remaining credits at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan), but whenever someone asks me what College I attended, I always answer "Bryan". The only thing I am lacking is the coffee mug on my desk, which sadly was broken some months back.

So when the recent uproar over the Clarification Statement erupted I was troubled. I was troubled when the faculty overwhelmingly voted 'No Confidence' for the current administration. I was troubled over the rhetoric and condemnation coming from past and present students. I was troubled over the angry blog posts and articles from professors. I was troubled by the hateful language and the shameful name calling.

But then I noticed a pattern. None of this was coming from the Board or the Administration. While I cannot speak to what private conversations any of them have had, all of their public statements have been kind, gracious, and restrained.

All of the hate, anger, and outrage are coming from only one side.

That made me want to dig deeper, and here is what I discovered:


1. No one seems to be discussing the fact that certain faculty members were clearly in violation of the Statement of Faith.

The germane section of the Statement states the following: "that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death."

Certain professors, while signing that they were in full agreement with the Statement of Faith, nevertheless began openly advocating various forms of 'theistic evolution' (and I use that term non-technically). They even wrote a book endorsing these views. Yet the Statement clearly requires that one believe Creation happened "as related in the Book of Genesis". To claim that Genesis 1-2 is poetry or a myth, one would then have to say that Creation happened as described by the myth, which is clearly a self-defeating position (if it happened "according to the myth", then its not a myth). If one, however, believes Creation happened in a way different than what is related in Genesis, then that puts one outside the boundaries of the Statement of Faith.

Furthermore, the Statement maintains that physical and spiritual death were "incurred" because of man's sinfulness. If one believes that death came before man's rebellion into sin (and it would have had to if one believes in pre-homosapien-man) then that puts one outside the Statement's boundaries.

I could go on, for example, the meaning of the words "fiat", "creation", and "image of God", but you get the point. Yet, many are claiming that these professors signed the Statement in 'good faith" and just "interpret" it differently.

Nonsense. These are brilliant men who know they were playing word games.

Yes, word games!

Don't misunderstand. I don't think denying six-day Creationism puts one outside of the Christian faith. I do believe these professors were genuine believers who loved their students and cherish Jesus. An argument could even be made for allowing openness on different views on Creation. But in this case, Bryan College, from its beginning, refused to yield on that point. It made a basic agreement with the Genesis account mandatory belief for those wishing to work with or teach in the College. A few professors thought they could sign a Statement that clearly meant one thing, while openly advocating for the opposite position.

They got caught. They were held accountable.


2. No one seems to be discussing the fact that the Clarification Statement is no more specific than the original Statement.  

The Clarification reads, "we believe that all humanity descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms."

There is intense outrage that the Board has "changed" the Statement of Faith. In actuality, they are just stating the obvious, since the Statement requires that one believe creation happened "as related in the Book of Genesis". That book describes the special formation of Adam and Eve, who were the historical parents of all mankind. There can be no denying that Genesis 1-2 tells this story.

But notice something else. Nowhere does the original Statement or the Clarification force a belief in a literal 24-hour period.

Nowhere does it mandate belief in a 6,000 year old Earth.

Such concepts are nowhere to be found in the Clarification.  Why? Because nowhere does Genesis 1-2 overtly define a "day" as a 24-hour period and nowhere does Genesis give us an approximate age of the Earth. Those are interpretive questions and the Board rightly allowed room for disagreement on those issues.

If one believes Creation happened "as related in the Book of Genesis", then no professor should have a problem believing in Adam and Eve, since they are clearly described in the very book they declared they were in agreement with.

Yet an entire off-key chorus of angered professors, students, and alums are decrying this as unwarranted and illegal because the Bryan Constitution forbids alterations to the Statement. But this isn't an alteration, its a clarification.

Or do they really believe that we may not hold any professor accountable for any position they teach just as long as they sign the Statement? Are these naysayers really saying that the Board does not have the right to clarify anything?

What if someone openly taught that Jesus was not born of a virgin, even though this is required in the Statement? This person could easily maintain that the word 'virgin' is open to various interpretation and that the Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 could mean "young women", and that Matthew just used the Septuagint (which uses a Greek word that clearly means 'virgin' in the technical sense) in order to make a theological, not an historical point, and therefore Mary wasn't actually a virgin. Would the board be unable to take action? Could they not offer a clarification that by 'virgin' the Statement means 'a young woman who has not engaged in intercourse'? Or would that be an unwarranted 'addition'? What if someone does this with the Trinity?  I am not claiming that belief in Creationism is equal in importance to belief in the Trinity or the Virgin Birth, I am only pointing out that clarifying a Statement of Faith is at times a necessary practice.


3. No one seems to be discussing the fact that it is the Board's mandate, not the professors, to protect the theological position of the College.

Some professors (and the student's they have worked into a frenzy) are disgusted that they were not consulted on the Statement. There have even been posts that smack of intellectual snobbery, even questioning the intelligence of Board members and their competence for making such decisions. Never mind that the Board contains incredibly competent men, including former professors and pastors who have been studying God's word for years. They claim the refusal to include them in the clarification process has "insulted" and "demeaned" and "bullied" the professors. Students are now protesting, wearing black arm bands, taking pity on their 'abused' faculty members.

We must understand something that seems to be escaping the naysayers' attention. The Board is a Board of Trustees. The institution has put the trust of the organization into the hands of these trustees. They are ultimately responsible for setting the direction of the institution and ensuring that the administration, faculty, and employees are adhering to the theological foundation of the school's founders.

In short, it is their job to offer clarity on the school's theological identity. It is the professor's job to teach their respective disciplines in accordance with the theological statement they signed.


So What's Really Going On?

I've heard multiple complaints that some professors don't have a problem with the Clarification itself, but rather how it was 'forced' upon them and 'rammed' down their throats. So...help me understand. These professors are claiming to agree with the Clarification, but are angry because they are being asked to agree with the very thing they claim they are in agreement with.

Perhaps an example will help. On my wedding day I made a vow to my wife that I would forsake all others. Throughout the years, we have reminded each other of that vow (in lighthearted ways). Imagine one day a gorgeous young blonde named Susie moves in next door, and my wife jokingly reminds me of my vow. Now imagine that instead of ensuring her of my agreement, I become enraged.

I begin to protest, "you have no right to amend our agreement! I agreed to forsake all others, but now 19 years later you are trying to amend the agreement." [Note: for the logical inconsistency of that position, see point #2 above].

My wife would be stunned and would probably ask if I had planned to have an affair with Susie. Now imagine if my response was, "no of course not. I am fully in agreement that having an affair with Susie would be wrong, but you have no right to insist that I agree to this. At the very least we should have given this some time, consulted experts, and did our own study to see whether or not sleeping with Susie would actually be a violation of the Covenant I made with you."

If that sounds stupid to you, and if you are still in agreement with the professors' protests, you really need to think through your inherent inconsistency.

So what is going on?

At the end of the day, there is a section of the Bryan College community (professors, students, alums) that don't want Bryan College to hold to Creationism. They are embarrassed. They feel such a position is intellectually backward and unscientific. They want Bryan to be "open" on this position because they themselves have already rejected Creationism, or at least believe it should no longer be mandated. They want to appear to hold faithful to their covenant, yet be allowed to sleep with Susie (or at least are OK if other professor's do).

For some time now they have been able to act as if Creationism wasn't mandated. They pushed this in their classrooms and conversations with students. Is it any wonder why so many students are coming to their defense? But then they pushed harder, beyond just lectures and conversations, even to the point of writing books advocating evolution.

The Board had enough.

Even if one could agree that Bryan should be open on this view, it clearly is not. At least not historically. Right or wrong, its founding documents do not allow this concession. President Livesay understands this. The Board of Trustees understands this. I only hope more professors and students are willing to recognize this as well.

The rallying cry of the disgruntled group is 'academic freedom', and in their head they have imagined this to be their William Wallace moment.

Its not a matter of academic freedom. Its a matter of honesty. The Board expects them to mean what they say. Or in this case, mean what they sign. So does Christ. So should you.