Tuesday, September 29, 2009

His Hands and Feet

We as Christians are pictured as united together in the body of Christ. What does it mean to be the body of Christ? It means He works through us and empowers us to do His work in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29; Philippians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Now it is clear it is His work both to build His church (Matthew 16:18) and to cause it to grow up in Him (Colossians 2:19). This is important because, while we frequently realize we need God's power to live for Him (John 15:5), we often try to carry out God's work in the world based on our cleverness and organizational ability. Or we recognize the need for God's power but see Him as a magic genie to carry out our purposes rather than the God who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11; Colossians 1:18, 19).

It is also important to realize that we work together as a body to accomplish God's purpose. We are pictured as a body of which each part is necessary (1 Corinthians 12:12-26; Romans 12:3-8). This tells against our culture's strong tendency toward individualism. There is a tendency for people to think of ministry and discipleship from a individualistic point of view rather then seeing ourselves as part of a larger body. Now don't get me wrong, I fully affirm that it is necessary to for a person to grow up in Christ rather then remaining in spiritual infancy (1 Peter 2:2; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:11-14). But we are to grow together as a result of all of us working in each others lives (Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 10:24,25). Further, we see that we are all members of the body with different functions. We are not all meant to be the same or pressed into one mold. No member is to see itself as better than another because its function or to claim that others are not following God if they are not empowered with the same abilities (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 12:28-31). But all of us are to see that we have something to contribute to the welfare of others (1 Peter 4:10,11).

Therefore, we as Christ's body should work together to carry out His work in the world. That does not mean there should not be human leadership; this is required in Scripture (Titus 1:5-9). But leaders should avoid pressing everyone into a one-size-fits-all program that ignores their differences. Or leaving them on their own to try to find their personal ministries rather than working together. At the same time, every person under the leaders needs to ask how God would have them work together with the other parts of the body to accomplish God's purpose. This is not just doing one's own thing independently or waiting for the leadership to decide everything for them. Accomplishing this is a careful balance and hard to maintain, but one we need to work towards.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Imagine a stay at a beautiful tropical beach. Lying in the sun, swimming in the ocean, having a lovely, peaceful time. Then you hear one word that changes your whole perception of the place. "Shark!" Sometimes we Christians can see the experience of church as being like this. We want to see it as a calm, peaceful place where we can be comfortable and have a refuge from all the cares of the world. But there are sharks in the waters.

Scripture tells us we live in the midst of a battle and must prepare ourselves for it (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Corinthians 10:4,5), for we face a dangerous enemy (1 Peter 5:8,9; 2 Timothy 2:26). Nowhere are we told we can be comfortable in the world, but we are aliens and sojourners here (1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:13). This being so, one of the most dangerous things we can cultivate is a spirit of complacency. If we feel we are at home in the world, it may be the world has become at home in us (1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4).

But shouldn't church at least be a safe place where we can drop our guard. The answer is, unfortunately, no. Satan is often found to be still at work among God's people (2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:1-15; 1 Timothy 3:6,7; 5:15). Now we are told that Christ has given us victory over Satan and his minions (Colossians 2:15; 1 John 4:4), and we can stand against them through Christ's power (James 4:7; Romans 16:20). But if we put this together with the earlier Scriptures, we are led to expect a long fight, not a quick conclusion. The only really safe place will be when we stand before God. Let us not expect a life of ease before then.

The problem is, we can start to see church as a perfect place where all my needs are met, rather than a place where we can encourage others and be encouraged as we fight the fight of faith (Hebrews 10:24,25). If we face life, even church life, with the idea that things should be geared to make me comfortable and happy, we will not only be disappointed, but we will miss the point of what God is trying to accomplish in our lives (see Philippians 2 :1-11). We do have to be concerned about our being instructed and growing in Christ (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Colossians 2:19), and if we can honestly say the congregation where we are attending is not assisting us in this, we may need to change churches. But part of this growth is preparing us to do what God wants us to do for Him (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 4:10,11) and to be prepared to take part in the battle (2 Timothy 2:3,4; Romans 13:11-14). So if we look for things in church or in life to be arranged to please us, we may end up being surprised when we find sharks at our beach.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Breaking Out of the Machine

Have you ever felt trapped in the mechanism of a bureaucracy? You feel like you are just a cog in a wheel, a thing being used to serve the organization's purposes. While it should never happen, sometimes the Christian church can become like that. People can be put in the position of feeling they are merely warm bodies recruited to fill some slot to make the organization work. How can we avoid this?

We need to start by asking what is the purpose of the Christian church. The purpose of the church is to bring people to know Jesus Christ and to grow in Him (Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:28-29), resulting in their becoming like Christ (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:13). The logical conclusion of this is that people should be encouraged to love God and love people (Matthew 22:37-40), resulting in their carrying out God's purpose in their lives by ministering to others (Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 6:9,10). This does not always mean giving people what they want, but it does mean having in mind their ultimate welfare. This can be a delicate balance of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but our goal must always be to build up people in Christ (Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 2:19). In this, the leadership must act as servants working for the welfare of others (Luke 22:24-27). This is not always easy. I know from hard personal experience that there are times you need to weigh the welfare of one person against the welfare of others. Nonetheless, we must keep the goal in view.

But the machine mentality is not like that. Rather, it puts the welfare of the individual below that of the welfare of the organization and expects people to fit in with the structure rather than seeing the structure as being there to serve the needs of people. And the goal very easily becomes the perpetuation of the machine and its systems and programs or even building up the status and egos of its leaders. And it is easy for even well-meaning people to get trapped in the machine.

The solution is not tinkering with the mechanism. The machine is like the Borg on Star Trek; it is very good at assimilating things and making them its own. You want small groups, the machine will produce small groups. You want a greeting ministry, the machine will produce a greeting ministry. Nor is the solution to eliminate or minimize the organization. The Scripture does call for a degree of organization (1 Corinthians 14:40; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:17), but. more importantly, does not, beyond that, make the degree of organization of the church a major issue one way or the other. Also, I have seen even minimal organization take on the character of the machine. Rather, what is required is a difference in attitude. This is often difficult to acquire and maintain. But only then will we be able to break out of the machine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Do We Do When the Barbarians Win?

It was a hard time for the Roman Empire. The Huns had come in like a whirlwind off the central Asian steppe, pushing before them various Germanic tribes into the Empire. This resulted in the western Empire falling, with ensuing chaos. It was also a hard time for the Christian church. The Germanic tribes that ended up in charge of what was left of the government were either pagans or followers of a belief that denied Jesus was really God. To make things more desperate, much of the Christianity existing at the time was a cultural Christianity with no real conviction. How would this situation turn out?

God sometimes seems to have a sense of the dramatic. He will produce a real cliff-hanger and then work in some surprising way to turn things around. This time He took a British youth and had him taken captive as a slave into Ireland (then a pagan country). There, God became real to him and led him out of his slavery. Then God sent him back to the people who had enslaved him, to tell them God's truth. This man, later known as Patrick, went--and the Irish listened. The Irish then sent people to preach Christ to the Scots and the Picts and to stir up the lagging dedication of Christians on the continent.

Meanwhile, in Rome, God caused a man named Gregory to decide he needed to go to the Anglo-Saxons (the pagan Germanic tribes then in the process of conquering Britain) and tell them about Christ. This was not to be. Instead Gregory was made pope and sent a delegation of others to teach the Anglo-Saxons. These converted the Anglo-Saxons, who in turn sent missionaries to Germany to preach Christ there.

Gregory was also instrumental in convincing the Lombards (who then ruled the majority of Italy) to come to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed God. God even used Clovis, king of the Franks, a man whose life was not notable for Christian virtue, to bring the area that is now France around to a general affirmation of orthodox Christianity. In the long run, all of Europe came back around to at least a nominal affirmation of Christianity (with many parts probably more seriously Christian than they were before the invasion).

We Christians in the United States many times feel we are standing on the brink of being overwhelmed philosophically and politically, and, if we do not do something immediately, all will be lost. I do not want to discourage meaningful efforts to turn the situation around, but I do want to put things in perspective. God is still in control of the world, and, if we are overwhelmed like the Romans were overwhelmed, God will in His own way and His own time bring things back around. Therefore, we should trust God--that He is in charge and His purposes will be accomplished. Even if the barbarians win.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Snake Oil Gospel

One of the colorful characters in the old west was the snake oil salesman. He would come riding into town in a fancy wagon, selling an elixir to cure all of everyone's ills. Sometimes we as Christians can treat the gospel like snake oil. We can claim it is the solution to all of everyone's problems--immediately. In this I am not just talking about the health and wealth gospel (though it is an extreme form), but there are many who would not follow this view who still seem to put forth Jesus as some sort of happiness pill. Is there any wonder we sometimes find people who say they tried Christianity and it did not work for them.

What then does God promise? The chief thing He promises is forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7). That God took all the wrong things we have ever done and nailed them to the cross of Christ (Colossians 2:13-15). We no longer have to bear the guilt and shame of what we done, as Christ has dealt with them (Romans 8:33-34). He also promises when we accept this forgiveness, He will begin to work in us to transform our lives (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13) and use us to accomplish His work in the world (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:29). He also promises we will know Him (John 17:3) and be His friends (John 15:14, 15, 16:27) and His children (John 1:12). And ultimately we have the assurance of being with Him forever (1 John 5:11-13; John 10:27-30). We are also promised we can have joy and peace based on these things (John 14:27; 15:11).

But the thing we are not promised is no problems in this present life (John 16:33; 1 Peter 4:12,13; Acts 14:22). We are told our troubles will produce perseverance (James 1:2-4), that God will cause them to work together for our good (Romans 8:28), that they are minor compared to the glory promised us (Romans 8:18), and that God will comfort us in them (2 Corinthians 1:3,4), but not that they will not happen. We are also not told we will never disobey God, but if we do and admit it to Him (1 John 1:8-10) we can put it behind us and go on with Him (Philippians 3:12-16).

But the bottom line is that all the things God promises are based on the forgiveness of sin (Romans 3:23-28). God offers a relationship with Him, meaning and purpose in life, and the joy and peace that come from knowing Him and knowing we are forgiven by Him. But first we must face the sin question and bring it to Christ to deal with (Ephesians 2:1-9). Let us not promise people, though, that if they do this they will have no more difficulties in this life. Let's quit peddling snake oil.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Is Progress?

Are Christians opposed to progress? I know that I, for one, have no desire to trade my computer for a typewriter, let alone a quill pen, or my automobile for a horse drawn carriage, let alone going on foot. But let us look at this more closely. What exactly is progress?

Progress means change for the better. But this implies a fixed standard of good that we are progressing to. If there is no fixed standard, it is impossible to gauge progress, let alone accomplish it. Further, as G. K. Chesterton points out in his book Orthodoxy, a changing standard makes progress impossible. It is like running a race where the location of the finish line is constantly changing. If you happen to cross the finish line and win, it is because of sheer luck. Therefore, to have real progress, you need a fixed standard.

Also, it has been my observation that real progress is generally the result of deliberate effort. If we went from typewriters to computers, it was because individuals put thought and effort into finding better ways to do things. Even when useful things are stumbled upon by accident, it takes a thoughtful observer to realize they are useful. The general tendency of things left to themselves is to fall apart. Now there is a tendency in nature for things to run in cycles, birds to eggs to birds, or trees to nuts to trees. But observation of the world around us would confirm progress does not simply happen.

The chief example that is alleged against this is the theory of evolution. It is beyond the scope of this post to deal in detail with this theory, though it is my assessment there are holes in it you could drive a truck though. Also, the extension of this theory to areas outside biology is simply an assumption based on no evidence whatsoever. But even if one allows evolution as a theory in biology (which I do not), it does not proves the concept of unlimited improvement by sheer accident, but rather occasional improvements in one realm. Even if billions of chimps on word-processors working for billions of years could manage by accident to write Shakespeare (which seems preposterous), this does not seem like a good method to build a library. The existence of an occasional lucky fluke does not make such events the order of the day.

Are Christians then opposed to progress? If by progress, we mean the deliberate effort to produce that which is good, we are not. This is true not only in the realms of faith and morality, but, except for perhaps some extreme cases, science and the arts. There is, of course, a question of what is genuinely good, but not of progress in principle. What we are opposed to is the idea that the basic standard of good changes and that whatever happens is progress. In this case, no progress is possible because we cannot know what direction we are going.