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Monday, January 22, 2007

Church Membership: Shattered Dreams

Have you even been in a perfect church? I don’t mean perfect as in completely ideal, I mean perfect as in, “As good as I can expect human beings to be.” Those who say, “Yes” are clearly in it now, and I would guarantee that they’ve been there less than five years, or they spent less than five years in that perfect church.

Whenever we show up at a new assembly, we have an idea in our minds of what the perfect church looks like. I, myself, thought I had found the perfect church, even acknowledging the standard laziness and selfishness of human beings and the impact that has. Yet, a year in, I found that my dream church was shattered.

For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? 1 Cor 3:3-4 (KJV)

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and a community the better for both.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions as visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself…When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes first and accuser of the brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. 1 Cor 11:17-19 (KJV)

So what do we do when faced with such a condition? If it is true that every fellowship must face times such as these, what is our response? Again, we return to the Scriptures.

Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. Gal 6:1-3 (KJV)

A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye. Luke 6:40-42

For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee. And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me. Heb 2:10-13 (KJV)

Can we not see the value that we must place on our brethren? We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: brothers, who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of his grace? not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom , too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words or deeds, but only by that one Word or Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.

And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5-11 (KJV)

The reaction of the Christian to a brother in sin is not to complain about it, abandon the fellowship or even to correct them, but first, to remove the beam in their own eye. I must ask – where is my sin? When have I done sin like this and been unrepentant? When have I done sin totally unlike this and been unrepentant? What about my heart, my relationship with the risen Christ? May God have mercy on us for our judgmental attitudes and failure to recognize that the presence of a brother who sins is grace – grace in that it reminds me that I am a fallen human as well, sinful, in desperate need of His grace and forgiveness. This doesn’t remove our calling to correct – but it is a prerequisite to correcting. What about your heart?

Friday, January 12, 2007


My middle son, Corin, is a happy guy. After days of theological wrestling, administrative challenges and minitering to the poor in spirit, seeing this happy face makes the day brighter. His smile is obviously far superior to mine.

And yes, my facial hair is naturally that color. I never knew it until I got out of the Army.

The pic on the top was our Christmas picture this year. I was impressed with how impossible it was to get our three kids looking at the camera, smiling naturally, and on the right spot. There were many cases of looking away, hand in the mouth, hitting the dog, running to Mommy and crying. We went with the cheesy smile shot.

To my friends who manage to do great pictures of multiple kids in their homes, I have this to say - You have a gift we do not. Of course, we have some pretty amazing gifts too, as the above pictures demonstrate!

Church Membership: The Word in the Mouth of Our Brother

Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

Phil 1:27-30 (KJV)

Why do the Philippians need to hear this word from Paul? In the age immediately following the resurrection and the ascension, it is the New Testament church, the church many denomination claim to hold true to, the church that is supposed to be as good at it gets…yet the Philippians need to be told to hold true to the gospel. This isn’t due to external persecution, but internal strife!

In fact, this is not a rare occurrence in the New Testament. Galatians, 1st Corinthians and 1 John speak of the strife in the church, as do other passages. The church has false converts, heretics, confused Christians, weak Christians, arrogant Christians, and sin-laden Christians in it, yet the Philippians are not told to abandon the church because of its problems. Instead, they are told to stand firm. There is a very good reason for this.

The death and the life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources; rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from the outside, in God’s word to him. The Reformers expressed it this way: our righteousness is an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness that comes from outside of us. They were stating that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward, to the Word that comes to him. The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? He can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. He is as alert as possible to the Word. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word. And it can only come from the outside. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

The Philippians, and all Christians, need the righteousness of Christ. Even when we are at our best, we are still sinful. It is Christ that saved and Christ that drives us in sanctification, not ourselves. We become disgusted at our brethren, yet were we not them at some point? We need the Word, but because we are sinners, we need it to come from outside of ourselves.

God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.

The very best person to bring the Word of God to use in a pure application is anyone but ourselves. Placing ourselves in a box where we will take in and interpret how we wish is not the design of God for the church universal – it is the church local that provides the mechanism for growth. When we are faced with the pettiness of many of our churches and in our churches, we need to review one of the hard sayings of Scripture in Philippians 2:

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.  Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of  others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Philippians 2:1-8 (NKJV)

The humility exhibited by Christ is the humility we are to demonstrate. Calling the sinfulness of our brother a justification for separating ourselves is pride resisting the call of the Spirit to humility. You are no better than they, and neither am I. Abstention not only denies us the benefits of receiving the Word from our brother, it denies them the blessing of receiving the Word from us. Whatever justification you may use, humility and placing others above ourselves are no part of it.

So why does God place us in churches that so often get broken? That is the subject of the next post.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Church Membership: Considerations for Abstention

There are, I would say, historical, practical, technological and theological reasons that believers choose to isolate themselves. Some are more valid than others, but each should be considered in the light of circumstances (historical/practical), effects of culture and human depravity (technological) and context (theological). I’ll address an example of each, in that order.

The Desert Church Fathers are historical examples of believers who isolated themselves intentionally and grew closer to God. Some significant names include Chrysostom, Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony the Great. These men demonstrated that an isolation can be very edifying, indeed, and can help us divorce ourselves from our parochial attachment to the cultural dressings of our faith.

Yet, what these men did is not what those of today who abstain from the assembly do. First, these men of God did not have multiple media blaring at them with the worldview of secularism, did not go to a workplace every day full of ungodly people and events, and furthermore, subjected themselves to forms of purgation and single-minded devotion to God. Second, many of them were driven to the desert by persecution, not their distaste for other believers. Third, the vast majority returned to either a monastic community or to the church in the culture and made a huge impact upon the local and international church. These three differences make the desert fathers a rather unlikely example for ‘abstainers’ to claim as models for their lives.

An advantage that ‘abstainers’ have over the early fathers is technology and the availability of spiritually helpful resources even while absent. The printing press, the radio, the DVD, and the internet provide a massive volume of theological information that is beneficial to the believer. We can listen to sermon series’ while driving, read the works of the early fathers with a mouse click, and read any of a seemingly limitless breadth of written works, with new ones of value being turned out monthly or more.

Yet, the advantages proffered by technology have cultural baggage. The same media that provide edification can provide ungodliness. The printing press prints heresies, the radio spews unrestrained sexuality, the DVD can be a vehicle for Passion Conferences or for gangster movies (my vice), and the internet is rife with pornography, even when it isn’t being sought. Furthermore, it is far, far easier to blow off many of these helps because it is just as easy to ignore it, turn it off, or put it down as it is to engage it. Truly, because we humans trend to laziness and selfishness, these helps are more likely to be dismissed immediately if they challenge our beliefs, and are more likely to be ignored than benefited from. On the contrary, a group of believers with the best interests of the kingdom and their brethren in mind will not allow us to merely ignore the truths of Scripture, and a preacher or Bible Study leader is far less likely to be walked out on than an internet site we disagree with is to be ignored. Technological advances do not replace the edification of fellowship and teaching of live brothers and sisters in our presence.

We must also consider the theological emphases upon individual. Salvation is an individual event, with individual people who were foreordained before time brought to Christ in individual quickenings. In Acts 8 we read of the Ethiopian eunuch who was left with himself, the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit as he headed home, where there likely were no other believers. In 1st John 2, we read that we do not need a man to teach us what is true and what is not, because the Spirit of Truth lies within us and will discern it for us. 1st Peter 2 discusses the priesthood of the individual believer, who as a priest is individually responsible for his own conduct, confession and worship.

These theological truths do not interfere with the descriptions of and prescriptions for the regular assembly of believers for kingdom purposes. A person is saved as an individual, but he then is part of the body of believers, as described in 1st Corinthians 12, and a body is deprived of a part and of its gifts when a member abstains. We do not need a man to teach us what is true, but the discernment of the Holy Spirit is not a license to avoid the prescriptions given to the church, which are numerous! They include communal constancy in prayer (Colossians 2), breaking of bread (1 Corinthians 11), giving of thanks (Ephesians 5), watching over one another (Hebrews 12), caring for one another (1 Corinthians 12, Matthew 25), Exhorting one another (Hebrews 3), bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6), loving one another (Hebrews 13), reproving one another (Matthew 18), submitting to one another in the Lord -which is pretty difficult by yourself (1st Peter 5), ministering in gifts (1 Peter 4), that offenders seek reconciliation (Matthew 5), private admonition and public rebuke if necessary (Matthew 18, 1 Timothy 5), to conduct the assembly in good order (1 Corinthians 14). All of these flow through the assembly prescribed to gather together (Hebrews 10).

Yet, as some have already pointed out, it’s awfully hard to find a church that does all of these things. It may even be that there are large geographical areas without such a church. Again, we can’t answer for the church unless we are the bishop/pastor/elder, but we must answer for our own obedience. The first thing that must happen for a church to move toward where it should be is for one person to do it.

What I present is that few of us realize what are some of the very important behaviors we should exhibit in our hearts and lives in the community of believers, and thus we neither demonstrate these behaviors nor understand the importance of a community that looks like something more than a tribe, social club, support group or fans of a sports team (thank, David!). The next few posts will outline what these critical behaviors are. I pray you will be as convicted about them as I have been.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Why I'm A Baptist

I'm in the middle of a week long class on the history of the Baptists. It has 800 pages of reading, lectures from 8-5 daily, and various written requirements. I go to my church administrator job from 0530 to 0700 and 1900 to 2200 to keep the system running. Oddly enough, I may have more time to write this week during class, which demands less of my undivided attention than my job does!

The first book I read for the class is "Baptists and the Bible", a historical look at the relationship between Baptists since their inception in the 17th century and Biblical inerrancy and authority. Clearly the Baptist denomination (if you can really call it such -there is no more fragmented group than the churches that call themselves Baptist) is one that has historically held to Biblical fidelity.

A further confirmation was this -

Today, a man in my “History of the Baptists” class was asked where he was from, and if he was a Baptist. He replied that he was from a small town in Alabama, and that he became a Baptist in August. When asked if he was a “convictional Baptist or Baptist of convenience", he relayed that when he was called by the Lord, he went to his Methodist pastor to inquire about seminaries. His Methodist pastor told him – “Don’t go to a Methodist seminary,” and “the place to learn the Bible is Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”

I'm thankful to be here, as tired and ridiculously undercompensated as I am (the Mrs. and I went over the budget this weekend. Ugh). May the Lord make me worthy of the study of His Word that I am blessed to be a part of.