There is a danger of seeing God as our servant who comes when we call Him and does what we want Him to. We can have this on a theological level, a God who we occasionally tip our hat to and helps us when we get into trouble. We can even believe He will make us rich with this world's goods if we just have enough faith. We can hold this on the philosophical level and believe in some form of unmoved mover, you starts the universe going and then leaves us to manage our own affairs. Or we can see God as a political God who supports our country or our political position. God is seen as (with apologize to C. S. Lewis) as a tame God, who serves our personal selfish ends.
I am convinced this is one of the reasons for the deplorable deeds done in the name of Christianity. People use God as simply a way to justify the things, even the nefarious things they already want to do. Evil generally justifies itself by doing things in the name of something people respect whether it is Christianity or liberty or helping the working man. That does not make any of these things bad. Now it needs to noted that the other main source of such deeds is the use of governmental power to force others to accept our beliefs. This is not limited to Christianity or "religion". The Communists applied it with atheism and proved themselves as bad or worse than any exponent of "religion". The solution to this is for all not to use violence to enforce what they believe, whatever that belief is.And in the ultimate analysis the Christian must remember that a forced faith is not a genuine faith.
But could this limited concept of God is the real God? To ask this question is to answer it. Can we really believe that God, if there is a God and I am convinced there is, would conform to our whims. Can we expect Him to respect our limits and only do as much as we want Him to do. Is not such a God obviously a product of our own fantasy. And may we not be forced to accept God as He is rather then who we want Him to be. For that is the only God that can be real.
(This was originally written about an abbot, but it could apply to any leader of God's people.)
The Abbot ought always to remember what he is and what he is called, and
to know that to whom much hath been entrusted, from
him much will be required; and let him understand what a difficult
and arduous task he assumeth in governing souls and accommodating
himself to a variety of characters. Let him so adjust and adapt
himself to everyone—to one gentleness of speech, to another
by reproofs, and to still another by entreaties, to each one
according to his bent and
understanding—that he not only suffer no loss in his flock, but
may rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold.
Benedict of Nursa, 480-547 AD, The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter II, What Kind of Man the Abbot Ought to Be (translated by Rev. Boniface Verheyen, OSB of St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison, Kansas, 1946 Edition, from Calvin College, Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
Should a Christian leader be concerned about the character of the flock and how best to minister to each of them? How can this be accomplished?
Benedict of Nursa was a key figure in the history of western monasticism. And the key question that must be asked is was this a good thing? Monasticism had been around for some time before Benedict's days. And it had gone to various extremes, people sitting on poles and living in caves in the desert. It represented too extreme an idea of Christians escaping from the world. But it also stood in contrast to the generality of professed Christianity of the day which was conformed to the world. Therefore while monasticism attracted its share of narrow, trenchant legalists, it also attracted those who seriously wanted to serve God. As a result, though it often degenerated into self-righteousness, it also did a large degree of good. It helped those in need, preserved learning and offered some (though not always the correct) view of what serious Christianity looks like. And while I would advocate a church structure that lays somewhere between the reclusive monk and the conformed cultural church, the existence of monks in that context may have been on the balance a good thing, even if a a qualified one.
In this context Benedict was a good influence in working for balance and moderation among the monks. He tried to balance the spiritual and the intellectual and the practical. He required prayer and singing and reading of Scripture and meditation, but he also required manual labor and work to help others. He changed the emphasis from that of hermits living in total solitude avoiding all contact with others, to that of brothers living in community helping each other and others. Monasticism was never a perfect institution and many times when down the wrong path. But Benedict by pursuing a more balanced path helped to preserve what was good in it and helped it to maintain a more helpful and even-handed approach to life.
Small groups are sometimes seen as the panacea for the problems of the modern church. I am opposed to panaceas. But I am still partial to small groups. Where do we find the balance?
The need for smaller groups in a congregation stems from the fact that it is difficult to know and interact with people in a deep way in just the formal church service. To reach the point where we rejoice with one another, cry with one another and pray for one another (1 Corinthians 12:26,27; Romans 12:15,16; James 5:13-16). What is involved here is a matter of trust. You need to know someone to be willing to tell them your real struggles and heartaches and go out of your way to help them in time of need. Also it can provide a forum where people can have their questions regarding the Christian faith answered and their difficulties discussed. This whole issue becomes more acute in the present times. In former days congregations were part of a smaller community and people knew each other outside of the formal service. But we live in a more isolated world where someone can walk in and out of a service unmarked and never relating beyond the superficial level. We need to make a special effort to relate to people and small groups can help make that possible.
But it is possible for small groups to go bad. If they are used simply to serve some agenda not shared by most of the members of the group they can become a battleground.(If you want to convince people of things they are hostile toward a sermon is a better method.) It is possible to carry over the self-righteous mask, the one that will not admit we are sinners into the group (Matthew 23:23-26; Galatians 1:10; Isaiah 65:5), creating a stiff, formal atmosphere. Or forgetting we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) not exercise any kind of restrain and end up hurting others by trying to be ourselves. There is also the danger that small groups can become factions within the church and tend to exclude those who are different. At the very least we need the presence of the larger congregation to remind us of being part of something broader and more diverse then our small group.
Like all structures a small group is useful in the right context. But it is no magic formula. It needs to be used in the context of the grace and forgiveness of God (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 8:33,34; Colossians 3:12-14) and of God's power working in us to transform us (1 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29). And we also must beware of putting this or any other method on too high a pedestal. For while God can use them to accomplish His purposes, we must not confuse the gift with the Giver.
For no one can know, much less follow, Christ by flesh and blood; the Father in heaven must rather reveal him. as happened here to St. Peter. This is also indicated when he asks what the people are saying about him and no sure and settled answer was given, but only various unsettled opinions and fancies of the people were recounted. This shows that without the grace of one wavers to and fro and has only an inconstant notion of God, until the Father reveals it; then a person knows what Christ is.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546; Sermon on the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul in Leipzig, (translated by John W. Doberstein, Luther's Works, edited by Helmut T. Lehmann, Sermons I, Vol. 51, p. 57).
Does God have to work in us for us to come to Him? What is the implication of this for our lives?
Christina shuddered. Certainly this could not be happening to her, to her daughter. Christina had tried to raise Susan right. She always seemed a good girl, bright and cheerful. It must have been the boy's fault. Maybe he drugged her. Christina had heard such things existed, back in the old days of sexual-anarchy. Or maybe it was just a story, something invented by the Protectorate to scare people. But Susan had not claimed any such thing. And now her life was over.
The Protectorate would never make allowances for Susan's being pregnant out of wedlock. She would become a pariah. No man would marry her. No respectable employer would employ her. What was there left for her. She could become a street-walker. And if the Protectorate caught her at that she would really be sunk. All because of one fatal error.
Christina believed in family values. Really she did. The times of sexual-anarchy had been incredibly damaging, to society and to individuals. Sexuality had become a wholly predatory thing whereby people simply used each other. Christina was not surprised there was a reaction. But was there no room for mercy, At least for her daughter.
Christina was interrupted in her reveres, when her daughter edged timidly into the room. Her head was downcast and her was just beginning to show in her body the result of her shame. "I want you to meet my friend," Susan stammered.
If she was bringing the boy here, I will kill him, Christina thought. But the person who entered the room was a willowy, middle-aged, woman.
"I am Barbara of the Congregation of Christ," the new woman stated.
Great, thought Christina, now Susan is falling in with fanatics. The Congregation of Christ lived by their own rules and were not a part of regular society. The principle of religious freedom protected them even from the Protectorate.
"I have come to offer Susan a place among us," continued Barbara. "If she is willing to come."
"But why are you willing to do this?" retorted Christina. "Are you not one of the oldest advocates of family values."
"We are and we cannot approve wrong behavior, but we believe God forgives sin," replied Barbara. "That is one of the reasons the Protectorate opposes us and forces us to live in our own communities. We give help to the broken and the needy in spite how they came to that pass."
Christina hesitated. She was not sure she wanted her daughter associating with such people. But what other choice did she have. Maybe there was something to this Christian thing after all.
This is not in any way a nuanced philosophical response to the problem of suffering. But it is a gut level response that I find hard to evade. Denying or removing God does nothing to solve the problem of suffering in the world. It merely eliminates the only One who can ultimately do something about it (Revelation 21:4; Isaiah 2:1-3; John 14:1-3). Suffering is the great given, the situation we cannot deny exists. What eliminating God does is make it incurable. Now one can try to go to the opposite extreme and say that evil is not really evil, it is how things are supposed to be. But if it is simply normal, why does my gut reaction say it is horribly wrong. It ends up not ending evil, but accepting evil as good and repudiating the idea of good. But it is God who is the standard for good. Without Him there is no basis for understanding, let alone solving the product of suffering. But often we are not so much interested in solving the problem as finding someone to blame (Genesis 3:10-13). But God is the only basis for a real solution.
I am not against experience. I have felt the presence of the Spirit so strongly that He seemed almost tangible. I have felt the joy of the Lord so intensely that I could not collect my thoughts. But it is hazardous to build our faith purely on emotion. I am convinced both a faith based totally on intellect and a faith based solely on feeling are both dangerous. One of the tendencies in theology is the pendulum swing. Someone takes some legitimate aspect of truth to an extreme. Someone else sees the problems with this extreme and jumps to the opposite error. And both justify their opinion by pointing out the weaknesses in the other's position. We see this in full effect in the question of emotion in Christian worship.
There are pitfalls in basing your Christian life on the shifting sand of feeling. Holding onto a feeling is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, they come and go. It is like falling is love. That initial rush of emotion cannot last. If we accept that and form a real commitment, we can build a deep relationship to last a lifetime. If we get blindsided by it, we can conclude love is gone and continuously dump people for someone new. In the Christian life we may not dump God but can go from one gimmick to another trying to find a way to recover our old feeling. This leads to a fragile faith that struggles to stand up to confrontation or suffering. But we should not jump to the opposite extreme and endorse a stoical Christianity. This can lead to a hard impervious morality, with little compassion for others. We can feel we are self-contained and do not need God or others.
Proper Christian experience should be grounded in God and who He is. That He has loved us and saved us (John 3:14-18; Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 4:9,10) and our response to this is to love in return (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Titus 2:11-14). Our joy and peace are our response to God, who He is and what He has done for us (John 16:33; Philippians 4:4; 1 Peter 1:8). In the same way our intellectual knowledge of God arises from knowing God (Jeremiah 9:23,24; John 17:3; 2 Timothy 1:12). But we need to recognize we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). None of our powers can be trusted in their natural state. But all can be used in God's service when He transforms them (Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:1,2; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). But this is the result of God's work in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). Therefore we must use discernment to decide what is really of God (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 John 4:1-6; Hebrew 5:14). But we cannot just suppress certain parts of our nature, thinking that will solve the problem.
A fixed creed is absolutely indispensable to freedom. For while men are and should be various, there must be some communication between them if they are to get any pleasure out of their variety. And an intellectual formula is the only thing that can create a communication that does not depend on mere blood, class, or capricious sympathy.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, Miscellany of Mankind, The Sectarian of Society (Project Gutenberg, 1999)
We need to be very careful of trusting to much in the political process. It is very limited in what it can do. It has the effect of only muzzling the beasts in society so they do not bite us. It cannot change them. Even this effect depends on the general support of the society at large. It is difficult to enforce a law without general support for that law. But much of the efforts of Evangelical Christians in recent times to change society has concentrated on political action. I have to ask are we putting too many of our eggs in the wrong basket.
Much this is a result of a concept, I am conceived is a false concept. This is the idea that this country's moral problems are the result of a few people in leadership who have led us down the wrong path. The rank and file at still on our side and if we can just eliminate a few leaders, we would go back to where we were as a nation. I am convinced this is a fantasy. If we lived in a country that was characterized by firm Christian moral convictions we would not be where we are now. What we have is a minority of people who hold such convictions and a large number of people who mildly affirm such convictions, but have no intention of standing up for them. This is the last remainder of an original nominal Christian position in our culture. This is not stable but seems to be slowly changing as more and more things are being considered acceptable.
The idea that this can be changed by simply passing the right laws or getting the right person elected seems to me futile. I am not saying all Christian political action should be avoided. Christians need to stand for what is right, even against opposition. Also if we do not work to oppose the political decay, it would undoubtedly go faster and further then it would otherwise. But unless there is a change of heart it will not amount to much more than a holding action. It is only in reaching people and convincing them of God and His truth, can we in the long run hope make a real difference in the political climate of this country. And this has the advantage of being the approach in which God has promised to empower and support us (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 8:1; Colossians 1:28,29). We need to let go of the past where Christianity was respected in this country and start over from the beginning as Christians in a pagan society. For it is only in this way we can hope to rebuild.
One of the problems with seeing God's will as a mysterious thing that must be figured out, is it leaves you a continual state of hesitancy regarding the future. There can be a reluctance to do anything unless you are sure what is God's will beforehand. Now I am not speaking against intelligent planning. There is a point for carefully considering something before jumping in. But there is also the danger of planning things to death and being so worried about what we should do that we do nothing. Also we should consider in our planning what God wants. But if finding what God wants is a complicated process complicated to apply we may never be sure. And we can be always second guessing ourselves about whether we made the right decisions. Rather I am convinced we should understand that God is in control of our life and will direct it (Ephesians 1:11; 2:10; Romans 8:28). This does not excuse clear-cut sin or ill thought out behavior. But it does mean we can live our life with confidence trusting God to guide us (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6). And it takes the ultimate burden off our shoulders and puts it on God's where it belongs.
One of the implications of the incarnation is that when we were helpless God came looking for us (Romans 5:6-8; 3:23-26; Luke 15). This is fundamental to how we understand the Christian gospel. The basic idea of most of the faiths in the world is us seeking God. This idea puts God off at a distance, in some perfect world, waiting for us to finally make it up to His level. And the idea is if we work hard enough, follow the right rules, use the right methods we will eventually get to Him. But we are sinners who are unable to save ourselves (Romans 7:14-18; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). We are bound with chains deep in our soul. And we need someone to come and rescue us.
God did not wait for us to come looking for us, He became a man in order to save us (Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 2:9-18). He paid the price we should have paid for our sin (1 Peter 2:24-25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). He also acted to draw us to Himself (John 6:44; Acts 13:48; 16:14). He did all the work. We merely accept it by faith (Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9; Galatians 3:6-9).
This undercuts pride (Ephesians 2:8,9; Luke 18:9-18; Romans 3:27,28). And self-righteous pride ends up looking down on others (Luke 7:36-50; 19:1-10; Matthew 9:10-13). This builds up a distance between us and others preventing us from reaching out to them or reaching them. And in the final analysis it is a sham that does not fit reality (Romans 2:1; Matthew 23:23-28; Isaiah 65:2-5). But if salvation comes from God doing all the work we nothing to boast about.
It allows us to have assurance. If salvation is based on what we do then it is always in doubt. I can never know if I have done enough and whether one rash decision could undo it all. But if it is based on Christ I can have real assurance (1 John 5:11-13; John 10:27-30; Romans 8:38,39). Now we need to be careful of assuming this assurance too easily. If we genuinely put our faith in Christ it will result in God working in our lives (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). And this work though faltering and imperfect is real and comes from God not us (Philippians 3:12-16; 1:6; Galatians 5:17). So there is a point where we need to ask if people have really put their faith in Christ (James 2:14-20; Matthew 7:15-23; 2 Corinthians 13:5). But we also need to remember that many imperfect people who pass the test (2 Peter 2:7,8; Hebrews 11:32; James 2:25). And if we have assurance we have not only the assurance of salvation, but also that God is at work in our lives to change us.
But if we can look to the fact that God came looking for us we can avoid both the pitfalls of pride and discouragement.
But what is that emptying of Himself or that poverty except the receiving the form of a slave by which the majesty of the Word was veiled and the scheme of mans redemption carried out? For as the original chains of our captivity could not be loosed, unless a man of our race and nature appeared who was not under the prejudice of the old debt, and who with his untainted blood might blot out the bond of death, as it had from the beginning been divinely ordained, so it came to pass in the fullness of appointed time that the promise which had been proclaimed in many ways might reach its long expected fulfillment, and that thus, what had been frequently announced by one testimony after another, might have all doubtfulness removed.
Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Letters, Letter CXXIV, To the Monks of Palestine, VII, (translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. XII, p. 94)
How important is Christ's fulfillment of prophecy? What does it tell us about His mission?
There are good and bad things about being something of a traditionalist. You can help preserve many good things that need to be preserved. But you can also end up fighting for things it is not really a good idea to uphold.
One such traditionalist was Pope Leo the First. Now it is important to understand from the outset that "pope" was an evolving position. It started out as being the name for any major archbishop and only later became attached particularly to the bishop of Rome. And while that bishop seems to have early had a degree of respect, being the in the city that was the head of the empire and where Peter and Paul were martyred, it was only over time that they came to be seen as having absolute authority. Leo did both good and bad things that added to this.
Leo was active in dealing with the various dubious teachings of his time. He was a key leader in convincing people that Christ was both God and man, and He used good Scriptural interpretation to show how this was necessary to accomplish our salvation. He also stood up to other questionable teachings of the day. He was willing to twice go out unarmed to negotiate with armies coming to sack Rome. He was not, in the end, able to prevent it being sacked, but he may have had enough prestige to prevent this from being worse than it could have been.
But as a traditionalist, he had too much of a concern for position and prerogative. He held that the pope of Rome had authority as being descended from Peter, per Matthew 16:18. Now he still argued doctrinal issues based on Scripture and reason and not his own decrees. He seemed to be arguing for something more along the lines of an administrative ruler. It certainly was not something universally acknowledged and uncontested. In Gaul a bishop named Hilary became embroiled with Leo in an administrative dispute in which Leo only partially won the day. He was unable to check the rising power of the patriarch of Constantinople. Pope Gregory the First, who was considerably after Leo, firmly opposed anyone regarding themselves as universal bishop or head of the church. It is hard to know exactly what each man meant by the words they used, and it would have been interesting to see a debate between them.
Leo does not seem so much interested in exalting himself as in maintaining the established order. Sometimes this can be more dangerous than the purely self-centered person. The person simply looking for personal power will often go too far and be found out. But the person who is fighting to uphold their perceived appropriate prerogatives can do much harm and do it with a clear conscience. There is, I am convinced, a place for a traditionalist. They can help maintain order in times of chaos, like Leo did. But they need to be balanced out, or they can take authority too far.
After looking at the fruit of the Spirit, I would like to look at the descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians 13, or at least the ones I have not already dealt with under the fruit of the Spirit. Now 1 Corinthians 13 is in a context. It is based on a discussion of the spiritual gifts and is intended to make the point that simply having a particular spiritual gift does not make you better or more spiritual than other believers; the real issue is whether it is exercised in love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 12:14-25; Romans 12:3-5). This is important because love is held up as the basis of all Christian behavior (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13,14). But it is easy to confuse impressive gifts or significant outward accomplishments with what is really important in the sight of God, the true character of the heart. This is particularly true as the outward things are so much easier to measure. But I would like to follow Paul in looking at love, which is the moral quality God really values.
If the ordinances are the biggest battleground in the Christian church, mode of worship seems to come second. Everything from the type of music to the nature of acceptable body movements has been contested. This is often because it is the outer trappings that people first encounter when entering a church. But these things are just the outer trappings.
Worship should not be seen as confined to a particular time and set of activities, but should involve all of life (1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 12:1,2; Micah 6:8). Further, the response of worship, praise, thanksgiving, and prayer is to be continual (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Psalms 34:1-4; 104:33). But that does not mean we should not meet together to worship (Hebrews 10:24,25; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Ephesians 4:16). There are those who say they can worship God anywhere. Not only can we worship God anywhere, but we should worship God anywhere. We meet together to be encouraged and instructed in worship. Also, we build relationships so we can work together and help each in carrying out God's work (1 Corinthians 12:12-26; Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11-13). The congregational meetings are the practice sessions for the game of life. And in the worship of God there are no super-stars who can miss all the practices and expect to show up on the day of the game and be of value to the team. But we also should not confuse the practice session with the main event and feel that if we just show up on Sunday, we are following God.
Now one of the basic necessities of worship is that it is from the heart and is not just going through the motions (John 4:23,24; Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 58:3-12). Nor are we to worship to please other people rather than God (Matthew 6:1-18; Galatians 1:10; Proverbs 29:25). The issue here is not a particular level or type of experience, though I am not against experience, but simple honesty. Do I really mean what I say? I do not think there is any particular form or approach to worship that guarantees this. Now God does call for a degree of order in worship (1 Corinthians 14:26-40; 9:19-23; 11:17-22). But the order given is very informal, and the main idea is that things should not get totally out of control. The key idea should be a meaningful and undistracted focus on God. .
The main issue is not the mode or method of worship, but what is in the heart (Romans 2:16; Hebrews 4:12,13; 1 Samuel 16:7). It is easy to get caught up in the trappings and miss the real point. Also, any trapping that serves the basic purpose is good. I suspect that most of the differences in worship styles reflects differences in personalities. And if so, we seem to be fighting over things that are more a matter of taste than substance. And we need to focus on the substance.