Monday, August 31, 2009

The Numbers Game

One of the greatest revivals in the Old Testament was started by a man named Jonah. Afterwards, he went out and pouted because he wanted the people involved to be destroyed rather than repent (see Jonah 3-4). There is a common, often unspoken and unexamined assumption today that the success and the size of a ministry shows the spirituality of the leadership and God's blessing upon them personally. There is no basis for this in Scripture. The Bible says it is God who causes the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5-9,)and unless He builds something it is done in vain (Psalm 127:1-2). It also says Christ, not we, will build His church (Matthew 16:18).

Samson, like Jonah, was successful in delivering Israel in spite of his moral flaws, although they brought him down in the end (see Judges 14-16). While Jeremiah, who wept over the destruction of Jerusalem, saw little in terms of results (see Jeremiah 13,19). It is true the apostles had 3,000 and 5,000 converts in two of their first sermons (Acts 2:41; 4:4), and they are said to have turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). But nowhere is this attributed to the apostles' spirituality. The point is not the spirituality of the apostles but the great power of God, and that the God who accomplished these things is with us--even if we do not see such spectacular results.

But we should not make the opposite mistake and assume large numbers and success mean a ministry is superficial and catering to people's whims. It is true you can be successful by telling people what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4) and abolishing the stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). But one can also be successful because God is at work (see above). How then are we to judge?

May I suggest we are not. Paul advises us not to judge before the time and says he does not even judge himself (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), and we are admonished not to judge one another (James 4:11,12). This does not mean that we should not correct specific errors. We are commanded to do that (Galatians 6:1; Romans 16:17). But I do not believe it is scriptural to make general judgments of other people's spirituality; only God can do that (Romans 14:4,10-12). There may be those we think are impressive whose works turn out to be wood, hay, and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) and obscure people whose works turn out to be gold, silver, and precious stones. (Or there may be people who appear impressive and truly are and obscure people who are just obscure. We should avoid judging what only God can judge.) But we should rather ask how can we better follow God (Philippians 3:13-14) and better reach out to those who need to know Him (Matthew 28:18-20). If the example or procedure used by someone else helps us in this, it is all to the good. But let us not be confused by mere numbers.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Who Has Received the Authority?

“By what authority are you doing these things?” This was a question that was hurled at the Lord (Matthew 21:23-27). While Jesus treated the question with disdain, it is still asked in Christ's church, sometimes with serious practical implications. What, then, is the basis of authority in the Christian church?

It is based in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). A mediator is a go-between, and anyone who claims that we have to go through them to get to God is setting themselves up as a mediator in place of Christ. The ultimate expression of Christ's authority is the Bible, and it is by the Bible that all things are to be tested (Galatians 1:8,9; Acts 11:17; 2 Timothy 3 :16,17). Human authority is justified by the teachings of Scripture (Hebrews 5:4-6).

But where does human authority come from in the church? In John 1 :12 in the Greek, it reads “But to those who receive Him, that is to those who believe (have faith) in His name, He gives the authority to become sons of God.” (It is clear here in the context that “sons of God” does not mean everyone, but those who are born again of the Spirit of God; see John 1:13, 8:42-47; Romans 8:16,17). Peter professed faith in Christ (Matthew 16:13-17) and was promised the authority of binding and loosing (Matthew 16:18-19). It is those who have the faith of Peter who share the authority of Peter. Christ, after claiming all authority resided in Him, told the 11 disciples (note: not "apostles," referring to their office, but "disciples," referring to their being followers of Christ) that they had the authority to make other disciples, baptize, and teach. Christ, speaking to his disciples on the subject of church discipline (Matthew 18:1, 15-20), stated that they all would have the authority of binding and loosing and what they would agree on when they gathered together would be established. When the followers of Christ gather together, they have the authority to do the work of the church. I do not see this as advocating a specific procedure (such as voting), but as grounding whatever is done in the consent of the disciples of Christ. Leadership is based on this authority, but once instituted there is a obligation to be subject to them (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). But leaders are to act as servants (Luke 22:25,26) and not lord it over the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4).

In all this I do not see a specific system, but a set of general principles, with considerable latitude in their application. The real basis of authority is obedience to Christ and to His word. The emphasis in Scripture is not on what individual is in charge, but that those in charge are to decide issues based on what Christ wants and what His word says, not on what pleases them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Economic Justice

What responsibility do Christians have to the poor and starving of the world. At first this seems like a simple question--until politics and economics get in the way. The world is full of political programs designed to help the poor. But the question comes, do these really help the poor, and if not what really does. It doesn't help that many who proclaim most loudly they are on the side of the poor are the people evangelical Christian feel strongly they need to oppose on other grounds. What does the Bible teach on this subject.

There are many Scriptures that affirm that God is the advocate of the poor and the afflicted (Psalms 113:7; Isaiah 11:4; Jeremiah 20:13). He is opposed to those who oppress them (Zechariah 7:10; Luke 20:47; James 2:1-6). He also demands they be assisted (Proverbs 19:17;Isaiah 58:7; James 2:15,16). We are also admonished not to make the pursuit of riches our chief occupation (1 Timothy 6:9-10; Matthew 6:19-24; 19:23,24). But this is only half the story.

We are also told to have a work ethic and a business ethic. We are admonished to work for a living and to do that work diligently (Proverbs 6:6-11; Ephesians 4:28), even to the point that we are told that those who deliberately will not work should not be fed (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). But one of the harshest rebukes in the New Testament is addressed to those who, among other things, do not pay their workers (James 5:1-6; see also Deuteronomy 24:15). We are also to preserve honesty in our business dealings (Leviticus 19:35,36; Amos 8:5; Matthew 23:16-22.

The picture here is of a just wage for a just day's work and a just product for a just price. Not that these can be precisely defined, but they are the ideal. (Nor do I see greed as being the appropriate motivation in our economic dealings--greed is not a Christian virtue.) It is a matter of justice that those who can should be expected to work for a living and that they should be rewarded accordingly. Nonetheless, this does not negate God's demand that we help those in need. But our goal should be to help them, if possible, to a place where they can work for a living. Does this mean we should not help those whose need is their own fault. No, God helped us when, due to our own fault, we were lost in sin. But I do not think we should encourage or enable those who spurn God's commandments in this area. This is often a thin line, and I believe it is always better to err on the side of mercy. But in being merciful, we should not forget the ideal. Also, while the government may curb gross abuses, the solution does not lie with it, but with the right moral attitudes and actions. The primary answer is not in laws but in our own hearts.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Spinning Our Wheels

One of the ways to get a car or truck really stuck is get it on loose snow or sand, so the tires are turning, but instead of taking you forward, they are just digging their way into the ground (or snow). And no matter how hard you push on the gas, the car doesn't move. One of the most common statements about the church in the United States is that we lack commitment. Yet I have never seen a pastor who did not preach his heart out calling for commitment. Why are we trying so hard and not getting anywhere? Why are we spinning our wheels?

While there are people in any congregation who need to get their lives right with God, I suspect this message does not affect most of the people because they believe they are already committed. They live "good moral lives", they are involved in church activities, they may have made a past decision of commitment, and they throw the call to commitment over their shoulders to those who really need it. Yet I have to question whether this is all the preacher is really asking for. Are we accepting too low a standard of commitment?

Or dare I suggest another possibility. Is it possible that church leadership has unrealistic expectations. Are they looking for a perfect church that does not exist in the real world. Also, could it be that those in charge measure commitment, not by commitment to God and His truth, but by commitment to the organization and its programs. It is easy to elevate minor differences of opinion and personality conflicts into evidence of lack of commitment. But even if we consider that leadership may sometimes have idealized standards (and I think sometimes they do), are we then to settle for the present situation? How do we resolve this dilemma?

Scripture pictures the Christian life as a process of growth (Colossians 2:19; Hebrews 5:14). We are also called to carry out God's work in the world as on-going practice (Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 6:9,10). Now we are called to commitment, but it is commitment to be involved in this process and practice (Romans 12:1,2; Ephesians 4:17-24). There will always be a place for preaching for people to make this commitment. But those who have should never be satisfied where we are, but always be pressing on (Philippians 3:12), for the standard is God's perfection, and none of us are there yet (Matthew 5:48). In this same light, the leadership should not be too quick to judge a person's spiritual state (1 Corinthians 4:3-5), but urge them to continue on to grow in Christ (Colossians 1:28,29), and to do so by preaching the specific things they need to change to go on further with God (2 Timothy 4:1,2). Perhaps then we will be able to get enough traction to go down the street, rather then spinning our wheels.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Practical Mechanic

Would you send your car to a mechanic, who knew nothing about how cars work but had learned bits of knowledge here and there through trial and error, by tinkering with them. I certainly would not. Yet in the spiritual realm, there has been a demand to ignore the doctrine (the knowledge of how the spiritual life works) and get on with the practice. Now it is true there is a danger of erring in the opposite direction--of spending all one's time trying to understand God's truth and never applying it. This would be like a mechanic who had spent a considerable time studying about cars in books and had never picked up a wrench or a screwdriver in his life. I am not taking my car to that mechanic either. But one extreme does not justify the other.

One serious problem with throwing aside teaching to get to practice in the theological area is that we end up leaving out grace. Grace is based on the great truths of Scripture, that God loved us so much He sent His Son to die for us and to rise again to show that salvation was accomplished (Romans 3:21-31; 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). If we leave these out, we are preaching works. They may be strict, legalistic works (do not drink, do not dance, do not go to movies), or they may be kinder, gentler works (be kind, love other people, do not be judgmental). But they are still works (Romans 11:6).

There is, however, one big difference between our spiritual life and our car. We can take our car to a mechanic and give him money and tell him to fix it without knowing much about cars. (Though if we do not have some knowledge of cars, we are in danger of being cheated out of our money.) We cannot do this with our spiritual life. (Some people seem to think they can, but it does not work this way. Pastors and other church leaders are a considerable help as advisers, but they cannot make our decisions for us, and spiritual growth depends on the decisions we make.) Therefore, we ourselves need to know the theory and practice of the spiritual life. This does not mean we need to know every technical term and distinction. Some of these are not really necessary anyway, though it is useful to know some basic terms. But we do all need to know the basic elements of God's truth if we are to know how to apply it in practical situations. We must know both how the principles of the spiritual life work and how to apply them if we are going to be able to drive down the road of spiritual growth.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Fight Over the Celebration

Imagine trying to throw a party where everyone argued over the details. They argued over whether to serve chocolate or white cake. And over whether the decorations should be balloons or crepe paper. This would not be much of a celebration.

As Christians, we are called to celebrate the greatness and goodness of God and what he has done for us. And we have turned this into a fight over everything from the type of music to whether the prayers offered are previously written or spontaneous. But as I look at the New Testament, I find little stress put on the details of worship. There are, of course, examples, but few commandments. I return again to the concept that God commands what He intends to command (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5,6; Matthew 15:9). If this is so and if, as I have previously stated, the emphasis as well as the content of Scripture is inspired, I am forced to conclude that much of what we contend over are matters God regards as indifferent (see Romans 14:1-12) or at least unimportant.

There are, however, certain principles that are laid out in Scripture. We are to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). (Note this is contrasted to the Old Testament temple ritual, where everything was spelled out.) "In spirit" indicates that we mean it and are not just going through the motions (Matthew 23:23-26). This is vitally important, but it is a matter of the heart, not of the outward form. It is possible to read a liturgy and mean it or to dance before the Lord and merely be caught up in the excitement of the moment. "In truth" refers to the content of worship, whether it is Biblical. There are certain forms of worship that are clearly contrary to the teachings of Scripture (for example devotions to saints, 1 Timothy 2:5, Matthew 4:10), but this mainly concerns, not the outward observance, but the sentiments expressed. We are also told to do things properly and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). But if we look at the description given in this passage, it pictures something fairly informal (1 Corinthians 14:26-33); individuals take turns speaking what God has given them. What is forbidden, in context, is people acting in a disorderly manner (everyone speaking at once) or doing things that make no sense to onlookers (speaking in tongues without interpretation).

While I admit there do exist abuses (probably on all sides), I am convinced that many differences in approach amount more to differences in culture, upbringing, and personality than real Scriptural issues. What I would really like to see is an attempt to combine various kinds of styles, incorporating the strengths of each and restraining the each others' extremes. But barring, that I would at least advocate seeing the worship patterns of other believers as genuine attempts to celebrate (though not always perfectly) our great God and His works.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Let Us Eat Drink and Be Merry?

How can I do the right thing and not just the easy thing? To do this, I need a standard to live by. If I want to follow a moral standard, which one do I choose. At first, there seems a bewildering variety of standards to pick from. But John Stuart Mill claimed there were at bottom only two basic approaches to morals. While I disagree with his choice, I am inclined to believe his assessment. One option is that there are absolute transcendent morals, to which our desires are required to conform. The other is that the standard is what gives the greatest amount of pleasure. I am inclined to think that those who hold to relative morals or no morals or that the standard is whatever works, end up, in the final analysis, following the second view.

To be fair to those who hold this view, they often hold it in a qualified form. They may claim that self-restraint will ultimately give greater pleasure than following the impulse of the moment. They may claim that we should not consider only our own pleasure, but what will give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number or even be willing to sacrifice our own pleasure for that of others. Nonetheless, I feel there are real problems with this viewpoint.

What basis do we have for equating what gives pleasure with what is right? I recognize the natural attraction of this, like believing a hot fudge sundae has no calories. But it does require justification, especially since the more conventional moral systems (those of the first type) oppose the idea. (This does not necessarily mean they are opposed to pleasure, merely that they do not make it the ultimate standard.) Also, the question of what gives the most pleasure is not as simple as it seems. Frequently, we find ourselves trying to judge between the impulse of the moment and deferred long-term satisfaction. This becomes even more acute if we have to judge what will give the greatest pleasure not to just one person but the greatest number . To make things even worse, there is a question of whether what gives a person the most pleasure depends on their philosophy of life. Note that different people have different things that give them pleasure but that the same person, if they were to change their viewpoint, would have different things give them pleasure.

The result of all this ambiguity is that whatever good intentions it may start out with, this view tends over time to degenerate into pure selfishness and moral (and ultimately legal) anarchy. It may start with an Epicurus who advocates self restraint and lives on cheese and crackers. But it ends in a Nero who indulges every passion. I do not believe it has yet been seen what follows from taking this view to its logical conclusion. But I would advise returning to an absolute ethical standard before we find out.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Diplomat's Dilemma

Suppose you were appointed ambassador to a foreign country. You would be called to represent your country in that other land. There are two mistakes you could make. You could so despise or look down on the inhabitants of the country you were ambassador to that you could not understand them or communicate with them. Or you could fall so much into the mind set of the people where you serve as an ambassador that you sympathize so much with them you could not represent your own country.
Christians have a similar dilemma. We are called to be ambassadors for the King of Kings (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are required to reach out to those in the world (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; 14:23-25; Luke 19:5-10), but we are also not to allow ourselves to be pressed into the mold of the world (Romans 12:2; Colossians 2:8; Galatians 1:10). This is what is referred to as being in the world and not of the world (see John 17:13-21). This is easy to talk about but hard to do. It does not help that there a tendency to slowly slip in both directions. We can slowly drift into our own Christian world and have a hard time reaching those outside. Or we can slowly slip into the world's way of thinking and away from Christ.

How do we live so as to avoid these extremes? First, it helps to understand that this is a difficult balance to maintain. This will steer us away from simplistic solutions and pat answers. There are many concepts such as Seeker Sensitivity which may have useful ideas to be considered in finding the right path. But we should cautious of making anything the final word on this subject. Also, we should be slow to judge or look down on those who take a different position on this subject than we do (see Romans 14:1-12).

We should also remember we are sinners in a sinful world saved by the grace of God. If we remember we are sinners saved by grace, we will be less likely to look down on the people around us and withdraw from them. If we remember we are sinners in a sinful world, we will be more careful not to be drug down into the world's way of thinking and acting. And if we avoid these opposite pitfalls, we will be better ambassadors of a loving God to a hurting world that needs Him.