Category Archives: Church Life

Easy Come, Easy Go, Easy Come

“. . . the American church has not treated [growth in Christ] with an equivalent urgency [compared to evangelism].  The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth–getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs.  We turn matters of growing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers, and deeper life conferences, farming it out to parachurch groups for remedial assistance.  I don’t find pastors and professors, for the most part, very interested in matters of formation in holiness.  They have higher profile things to tend to” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p5).

Customer service is always the best when the customer is new.  The new customer gets the best deal, latest program, most attention and grandest promises.  Maintaining loyal customers takes far more hard work than finding new ones.  Let the disgruntled, underserved old customers leave.  We’ll find three new ones to replace them.

You can always find someone new to buy what you’re selling as long as the sales pitch is relevant and right.  A regular influx of new customers gives the appearance of a vibrant, healthy business and we love appearances more than substance.  We want to know how much we’ve generated new business, not how much we’ve retained and cultivated old business.

This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to American business and the church.

This is the Americanization of congregation.  It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques and organization flow charts, and then energized by impressive motivational rhetoric (Ibid., p24).

We need look not much farther than a church’s membership roll to see the effects of this “Americanization.”  Churches attract thousands of members (customers) with slick programming and irresistible sales pitches.  And over time those members regularly drift into obscurity with little to no accountability or spiritual formation.  The church is then awash in pragmatism, having to keep up with the market to stay alive.

There is little to no concern because thousands have come in to replace them.  And so on and so on.  Not until there is a down trend in new customers will there likely be any angst among the ranks.  Therefore, pastors shepherd a number rather than individual sheep and churches pride themselves on new “customers” despite the overwhelming number of old “customers” they were glad to see drift away into the wolves’ land.  Who cares which 2,000 sheep we have as long as we kept 2,000?  Who cares if 500 members went AWOL last year if we added 1,000 new ones?

All the while, our Great Shepherd would not stand for replacement sheep (Lk 15.3-7).  If even only one strayed from the flock he would not find a replacement.  He would leave ninety-nine secure sheep to retrieve the lost one.  He wouldn’t have just any old hundred sheep, but the one hundred he knew by name.

It is God’s will that all those given to Jesus will be raised up by Jesus on the last day (Jn 6.39).  Jesus will not lose one of them, which is a good thing because we lose them all the time.  Our Lord is not content to lose one of his children.  Yet, our flippant, weak view of church life (“congregation” to use Peterson’s word) implies he just might.  It implies Jesus cares only about those who seemingly start well rather than those who finish well. He’ll simply replace those who wander rather than bother with finding and retrieving them.

If Jesus will not lose one of his own on the last day, then let us resolve not to lose one on this day.

Do We Worship God or Worship Worship?

Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote (Is 28.13).

There is a fine line between worshiping God and worshiping worship.  Worshiping God is to glory in the mystery of Christ who “was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3.16).  Such worship creates more longing to know and obey this Christ.

Worshiping worship is to glory in the feelings generated by the truth of Christ in whatever context he is proclaimed.  Such worship creates more longing for the feelings we get when hearing of Christ, not Christ himself.  We don’t so much want more of God, per se, but more of whatever feeling is created in the name of God.  In this case we don’t “experience worship,” but worship the experience.  The feelings we have are no different than those generated by our favorite band, team or event.  And the reason we go back to church are not all that different, either.

We can be very easily deceived into thinking what we call “worship” is not worship of God at all.  It’s actually the worship of ourselves.  And like a drug, it takes more and bigger productions to feed the feelings we get from such “high.”  No longer do we expect simple gatherings of Christ’s church, but demand to be “wowed” so that we can feel like we’ve worshiped God.  Theatrics trump theology.  We’re no longer moved by the simple drama of baptism and communion, but need far more, far louder, far bigger to satiate our experiential appetites.

It’s the nature of Adam to be more concerned about appearances than reality.  But it’s the nature of Christ to examine the heart despite appearances.

How do we know if we’re worshiping worship rather than worshiping God?  We might answer that on two levels: congregational and personal.  At both levels we must ask if what the world sees in our public worship is consistent with what it doesn’t see?

At the congregational level:

  • Is our singing of Christ’s purity and glory reflected in our commitment to biblical church discipline?  In other words, do we just like singing and hearing snappy songs about Christ’s glory so we feel happy or are we serious about defending it in sad situations?
  • Is our preaching and listening of Christ as our Good Shepherd from the pulpit reflected in faithful shepherding in living rooms?  In other words, is our proclamation of the gospel simply about getting public results at the end of a service or is it to transform sinners into saints?
  • Do we care more about what the world thinks of our church rather than what God thinks of it?  In other words, do we measure our health by worldly acclamation or by biblical standards?
  • Does our public worship rightly reflect the identity of God’s people?   In other words, do we depict God’s people as pretty people who have it all together with quaint platitudes and smile all the time about it, or as warrior-saints who gather to fight the world, flesh and devil with God’s word and Christ’s strength?
  • Are the relationships “on stage” consistent with them “off stage”?  In other words, are we like actors who come together to put on a good show but have little to do with spiritual investment otherwise?  Or, is what we see “on stage” an overflow of what is true off it?
  • Are our long, elaborate prayers offered before the world reflected in a robust congregational prayer life?  In other words, do we give the appearance of being committed pray-ers or are we serious about prayer as a congregation?  Are the prayers offered on Sunday mornings substitutes for or supplements of a healthy congregational prayer life?
  • Is what we confess on Sunday mornings reflected in a vigorous congregational life of biblical theology, accountability, evangelism and prayer?  In other words, do we merely want everyone to think we do church or do we really do church?

At the personal level:

  • Do I evaluate a church’s service in terms of how it made me feel (amped, bored, etc.) rather than if it what was said, prayed, preached and sung was true?  Do I conclude that as long as I feel like I’ve worshiped then I must have?
  • Am I moved more by how a song was sung than what was sung?  (I realize there are less-conducive styles that do not facilitate congregational singing, but that’s for another post.)
  • Do I define worship in terms of how I feel about God rather than how he feels about me?
  • Do I leave the church’s gathering saying, “What a great service!” or “What a great Savior!”?
  • Do I subject God to my feelings so that if I feel a certain way then God must conform to it?  Or do I subject my feelings to God so that whatever I feel is tested in light of Scripture?
  • How much does the church’s worship influence my life beyond Sunday, or has the feeling waned by Monday?  Does the truth displayed in last Sunday’s gathering linger in my family worship, private worship, business deals, eating habits, thought patterns, conversations, etc.?
  • Do I only consider that I’m worshiping when I feel happy and clappy toward God?  Or is the crying out of a downcast soul as honoring, if not more, to God?
  • Do I leave the church’s worship making big promises to God about repentance, forgiveness, faith, etc. or do I actually repent, forgive and believe?  Oh, how we like to exalt making big promises to change rather than actually changing.  Feeling moved to change is far easier than actually doing it, but we think the feelings are enough to God.  Don’t make some big spectacle before men about how you’re going to forgive and love your enemy.  Just go and do it!

God is not unmoved toward heartless, hypocritical worship.  He’s provoked by it (cf. Mal 1.10).  What we feel about our worship and what God feels are not always the same.  But what he feels about it is always right.  Let’s make sure our lips and hearts are on the same page with God’s book.

PhD in [Your Church] Studies

Recently, John Piper answered the question, “Should pastors get PhDs?”  His tempered and pastoral response provoked some contemplation here at BMF.

Virtually every pastor I know has considered whether or not he should pursue further studies.  Whether or not a pastor should pursue a PhD is up to that pastor, his God and his church.  He must determine if his efforts will ultimately result in more faithful ministry to the local church.  Often it does and the church is better for it.

As one who likes the idea of holding a PhD more than actually earning one, I’d like to encourage all pastors toward a PhD nonetheless.  A PhD in their local church studies, that is.

A PhD is designed to identify a person’s mastery of a certain discipline and verify their competence in teaching it to others.  They are experts in their field.  Should not pastors apply that same, if not more, expectation and discipline to their local church?  Before a pastor considers a PhD in anything, he should first devote himself to becoming the expert of his local church.  In my case, I should want to earn a PhD in Unity Baptist Church Studies.  We should want to master all that can be known about our church and the people in it.  We should ensure no one on the planet knows more about our congregation than we do.  No one should be more qualified to speak on our local church than those who shepherd her.  There are dozens, hundreds and thousands of PhDs in any given discipline, but only few (or one!) in your local church “studies.”  I’d say that is a very special PhD and unlike any university PhD in the world!

Earning this PhD means to master the material of the souls in your local church.  What are the requirements to that end?

  1. Read and study your people.  As university PhDs immerse themselves in the writings of all those influencing their discipline, so pastors immerse themselves in the lives of their congregation.  Know what they think, how they’re influenced, where they live, and who they admire.
  2. Interpret your people.  As university PhDs critically interact with all the angles of their discipline, so pastors must know all the angles of their congregation.  Know how to best encourage, confront, comfort and motivate them.  Paul explained this in terms of becoming all things to all people (2 Cor 9.22).  Pastors do not apply a one-size fits all strategy but tailor their tone and counsel to the particular soul.
  3. Be jealous for your people.  As university PhDs protect their dissertations like one of their children, so pastors must guard the knowledge of his people with great care.  Paul asked the Corinthians, “Who is weak without my being weak?  Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (2 Cor 11.29).  In other words, pastors are jealous to know what’s happening in the lives of his sheep whether it be weakness, sin or joy.
  4. Teach your people.  As university PhDs are the resident experts in the academy, so pastors should strive to be the resident biblical scholars in their local congregation.  Teach the Bible.  Train your people to study the Bible.  Don’t settle for biblical and theological mediocrity.  Pastors are theologians training other theologians.

There are some distinctive features of this PhD program, however:

  1. It takes years to get started and decades to improve.
  2. It will never be completed because the objects of study are always changing.
  3. The graduation ceremony will coincide with your funeral.
  4. There will be no piece of paper awarded but you might a watch after fifty years.  There will be a crown, though (2 Tim 4.6-8).
  5. No university will recognize your work, but Jesus will.

Should a pastor pursue a PhD?  Absolutely.  He should become the world’s foremost expert in matters related to his local church and the souls therein.  He should make sure no one knows more about his church than he does.  If he does, he might find it far more satisfying and infinitely more rewarding.

Not only must the children of the redeemed family be born, but they must also be fed, watched, guided, and nourished up to manhood.  The growth of the heirs of immortality in grace and knowledge must be an object of deep solicitude with the faithful pastor.  His children in the faith are not glorified as soon as converted, but are carried through a probation, and often a long one, of conflict, trial, and temptation; and it is his business, by the instrumentality of the truth, deeply searched, carefully expounded, and appropriately applied, to conduct them through the perplexities and the dangers of the divine life” (John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry, 40).

Would Jesus Join the Tea Party?

And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17)

Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1862 about the conflict over slavery between the Union and Confederacy “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.”

In his second inaugural address in 1865, he’d not changed his mind: Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And when asked by a preacher if he was sure God was on the Union’s side, Lincoln replied famously and summarily the question was not whether or not God was on their side but if they were on his.

So whose side is Jesus on anyway? Mine or yours? Ours or theirs?  Would Jesus join the Tea Party? What does he think about income taxes and government loyalty? Is he an anarchist (all government is bad and should be resisted)? Is he a theocrat (society should be ruled by religious law and devotion mediated by the authority of the church)? Where does Jesus stand politically: with conservatives, liberals, progressives, independents, libertarians? Would he plug his car in or gas it up or ride a bike?

The Pharisees tried to pin Jesus down on a similar issue: should Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not (Mk 12.14)?  Did Jesus join the Jews in their hatred of paying tribute to a Gentile who think s himself God?  Or did he sell out and cower in the shadow of Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus?

While Jesus did not say everything that would be said about the relationship between his followers and the State, he did provide enough for the apostles to unpack.

1) Civil government—even an evil one—is a legitimate institution to be supported by taxes and respect.  Christians should be the most faithful and honest taxpayers on the planet.

What if our taxpayer dollars go to fund ungodly initiatives (abortion, for example)? Caesar was no altar boy himself. He spent taxpayer dollars building pagan shrines and temples to himself and his false gods. Yet, Jesus said to give Caesar his due not because we agree with his policies but because he will be held accountable to the authority granted him by God (see Rom 13.1-7).

After all, Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero after having survived the reigns of Caligula and Claudius. I think he’d be surprised at how easily we complain about our democracy!

2) Christians are to live as exemplary citizens so that if they are despised it is only because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world must have no charge against Christians except where their allegiance to the gospel trumps their allegiance to the State.

Christians are not to be seen as revolutionaries or mutineers. They’re not tax cheats or snarky loophole lovers. The freedom provided by Jesus in the gospel is not be used for rebellion, but for humble submission (see 1 Pt 2.13-17; Heb 10.32-39).

How we joyfully submit to the state often reflects how much faith we have in God to make good on his promise in the gospel. Do we really believe this world is not worth what we often spend to hold on to it?  Don’t throw away your confidence in God to hold onto stuff. Believe it or not, submitting to our civil government insofar as we can without compromising the gospel is an act of worship to God.

3) Jesus prioritizes the two kingdoms. Jesus did not define two mutually exclusive kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s. He wasn’t saying Caesar has his kingdom and God has his kingdom and we live in one or the other. We often separate them into the secular and sacred. Jesus wasn’t proposing radical separatism or radical revolution. He prioritized the kingdoms. He didn’t offer an either/or scenario but a both/and scenario, with one kingdom subject to the other.

He was prioritizing the kingdoms as one being temporal and earthly (Caesar’s) which is subject to one that is eternal and sovereign (God’s). Paying taxes to and honoring Caesar is part of living in this kingdom; this age of fallen humanity where we need police and firemen and roads. What Caesar does with those taxes and honor will be held accountable by God, but we entrust that to God while we gladly file our 1040s and honor the king.

The church should never be despaired by any administration. Listening to Christian talking heads, you’d think electing President Obama was the end of the world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. But don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. And ascribing any king, president, monarch, dictator, sheik or imam the power to govern the affairs of redemptive-history is to give to Caesar what alone belongs to God.  God alone determines the affairs of the world.

If it’s the end of the world, it won’t be because of President Obama or a nuclear Iran but because of our Great and Sovereign God who is bringing all things in subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ. We should be less concerned about who is in office and far more concerned about who is in Christ, because it’s before his court we’ll appear in the end.

Of course, we must engage in civil affairs in this life but only as long as we remember the priority of God’s kingdom to come.

4) It’s of more eternal importance that we give to God what is God’s than we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Jesus said to these Pharisees and Herodians, “You hypocritically assume that it’s more important what a person gives to Caesar than what a person gives to God. You’re the religious leaders of Israel and you are not giving God what he is due. Who cares about Caesar’s tax rates when you have no fear of God? Why are you more concerned about what happens at Caesar’s palace than what happens in the temple of God?”

We must prioritize the kingdoms such that God’s kingdom—evident in the church now but ultimately realized in a new heavens/earth—takes precedence over all other allegiances.

Folks often ask preachers what they’re going to do if/when it become illegal to preach on certain topics. While God will supply sufficient grace should the time come, I’m not scared of what the government might do if we preach the gospel. I fear what God might do if we don’t!  We don’t fear wrongly (in the eyes of men) preaching the gospel. We fear preaching the wrong gospel (cf. Acts 4.16-30).  We need not fear what laws may be enacted against Christian witness. We’d better fear God more than the state.

So, we pay our taxes on time. We do the speed limit. We buckle our seatbelts!  We gladly obey the law insofar as it doesn’t collide with God’s law.

And even more, we joyfully preach Christ. And we give the state only one option for despising/arresting us: hatred of Jesus and his gospel. And on the way to prison or the gallows we pay up our taxes, we speak respectfully of those arresting us (see Acts 24.2-4; 26.2-3), and then thank God that all government rests on the shoulders of Jesus (Is 9.6).

For the Christian, the health of the church, purity of her witness, the zeal of her worship is more important than the health of city hall, Nashville (in our case) or Washington. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only God-ordained institution by which he broadcasts his interests to the world. And she will be the only “nation” standing in the end. So the amount of energy we spend on political discourse should be exponentially outdone by the amount of energy spent on gospel discourse.  The amount of energy we spend compelling others to this or that candidate should be exponentially outdone by the energy spent compelling them to Jesus.  Our allegiance to Caesar must be exponentially outdone by our allegiance to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re merely aliens and strangers here. We’re citizens of God’s kingdom.

Despite what I may nor may not want to give to Caesar, am I giving to God what is God’s? We were stamped with the imago Dei—long before anything was stamped with any other image. Therefore, I owe God my life and paying Caesar is a small price to pay in light of that.

Brother and sister, what do you fear more: national socialism or local church apostasy?  In what do you put more hope: the spread of democracy or the spread of the gospel?  What makes you rejoice more: the election of a certain candidate or one sinner who repents?  Which kingdom takes priority in your time, money, efforts and conversation?

How would Jesus answer those questions? Would he be on your side, or would you be on his?

There will be hundreds of professing Christians gathered locally and thousands nationally for the National Day of Prayer in about a week. And they will be Christians who never gather with their local churches to pray. They will gather to pray for people they’ve never met and situations they’ve never touched. But yet don’t gather with their churches to pray for people who sit right around them every week in situations that affect them greatly.

But God hasn’t ordained your town to be a house of prayer for the nations. He’s ordained the church as the house of prayer for the nations!  God will change America, not when towns take a National Day of Prayer seriously, but when the local church takes her weekly day of prayer seriously. I’m not saying boycott the National Day of Prayer (I plan to be at our local one). I’m staying participate with far less expectation, investment and energy then than the local church gathers in prayer.

Would Jesus join the Tea Party? In one sense, who really cares? The question is are we part of his party? He’s more concerned about saving and sanctifying the people for whom he died. He’s more concerned about people hearing and believing that this world is under judgment and only those who repent and believe in Jesus will survive its destruction. He’s more concerned about holiness than taxes.

So pay your taxes. Rally your candidates. But you’d better make sure you’re keeping God’s kingdom in Christ your primary allegiance. Get out the vote if you want, but make sure you’re getting out the gospel more. You’d better be sure to love Jesus and the church more than democracy and the State. You’d better make sure that when these two kingdoms collide (and they always do) that you’re standing with Christ and his people.

And if someone asks you what you think about what’s going on in America you tell them it’s not nearly as important as what’s going on with them and God. Are they giving God what is God’s?

Local Church School of Theology

The New Testament describes a Spiritually communal approach to developing and incarnating a sound biblical theology.  The Bereans didn’t care how famous the dynamic duo Paul and Silas were (Acts 17.10-11).  They were as eager in their scrutiny of the apostolic witness as they were in receiving it.  The Corinthians themselves would be responsible for validating prophecy shared in their assembly (1 Cor 14.26-33).  They wouldn’t write down all the prophecies and overnight them to Paul before passing judgment.  They had to do the hard work themselves.

We consistently find that the local church is responsible for its own theological maturity and expression.  It would not be apostolic succession but apostolic confession that would sustain the church long after the apostles died.  It’s the local church’s responsibility to maintain that confession (Heb 3.12-14; 10.23-25).

In what way does the local church provide the best context for developing a sound biblical theology?  (By “local church” I mean the gospel-forged relationships with those with whom I live out and before whom I am accountable to the Christian faith.)  I’ll approach an answer by way of an illustrative detour.  Bob attends Main Street Baptist Church in Smalltown, USA.  He sits weekly with his family and other church members under the authoritative preaching of God’s word.  He appreciates his preacher and enjoys the church’s fellowship.  But his real consideration of Scripture comes from John MacArthur’s study notes and listening to John Piper’s sermon from last Sunday.  Then he can tweet and chat with other anonymous folks about it.  He enters a pseudo-community where you know everybody and nobody at the same time.  He really isn’t concerned with how his MSBC brothers and sisters benefited from their preacher’s exposition.  He sees little need in consulting his pastor when he can easily Ask Pastor John.  He really has no idea if his brothers and sisters are holding fast the confession of faith.

In no way minimizing the gift these pastoral and theological giants are to the church, the primary field in which our soul’s graze is our local church.  It is to our local brothers and sisters we owe primary attention.  It is with them we must work out God’s word and share common convictions and confession.  What Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll, Sproul or you-name-him thinks about an issue is important, but not nearly as important as what our local church thinks about it.  Unless we’re members of Bethlehem Baptist Church John Piper is not commanded to keep my brothers and sisters from evil, unbelieving hearts that fall away from the living God, nor we him (Heb 3.12).  We as members of our local church are commanded to do so for our brothers and sisters with whom we’re covenantally committed.

Rather than immediately wonder what Piper might think, we would benefit far more by asking what our brothers and sisters might think.  If I’m commanded to help my brother hold fast his confession then I’d better know what he confesses! How will Bill work out this week’s text in his marriage?  In what way did Bonnie see Christ in the text this week?  How do we as a church work through Jesus’ teaching on divorce or Paul’s teaching on communion?  Do we insist on independence and autonomous self-study (hyper-priesthood of the believer) or do we want to work out and share convictions within the biblical community?

It matters what “those” guys think in the big picture scheme of things, but not nearly as much what “these” guys in my life think.  These guys with whom I share the same cup and loaf.  These guys who know my children and cry when we’re hurting.  These guys who see me sin and fumble the faith.  These guys who know the right ways to encourage and confront me.  These guys are the theologians from and about whom I should most want to learn.

In what way does the local church provide the best context for incarnating a sound biblical theology?  Back to Bob.  Bob listens to Piper’s sermon and assumes the proper application of the text is to do what Piper and Bethlehem do.  Start a worldwide adoption fund.  Plant six new churches among unreached people groups.  Multiply campuses.  Bob gets quickly frustrated because his church does none of those things.  His church only cares about a little clothes closet and sewing blankets for foster kids. He then becomes critical that his church is not faithful and that maybe he should lead his family elsewhere, where the people are “serious.”

The best application of Scripture is however your local church attempts to obey Jesus.  John Piper does not live in our community.  John MacArthur has no idea about our local gospel soil.  What they do in their contexts is what they should do. The church is far better and healthier for their efforts.  However, what we do by faith in our contexts is what we should do.  Discerning what that is demands a deep commitment to working out our salvation within our community of faith.

Do I care more how John Piper handles his cancer or how Mrs. Smith, who sits three rows behind me, is handling hers? Did I even know she has cancer? Do I spend more time parsing MacArthur’s view on suicide than I do encouraging Penny who sits across from me and nurses suicidal thoughts?  Am I caught up in the Manhattan Declaration fuss or caught up in my brother who considers divorce or sister who suffers post-abortion guilt? Do I care more about what Mark Driscoll thinks about sex than I do what my pornography-addicted brother thinks about it?  Am I jealous of the celebrity ministries or jealous for my church to be faithful in worship, love and service?  The best context in which I can incarnate a biblical theology is to invest in the brothers and sisters in my local church.  It is among them I learn how to confront sin, encourage biblically and counsel wisely.

How will we live out the Christian faith together in our local community?  Maybe applying last week’s sermon in your local church is not launching a global missions initiative.  Maybe it’s writing an encouraging note to a sister who wonders if anyone cares about her.  Maybe it’s buying a year’s supply of thread for those blankets.  Maybe it’s visiting a brother at the job he hates and just wants some light to shine during the week.  Maybe it’s paying attention to the folks no one else pays attention to.  Maybe it’s praying for and encouraging the church down the road everyone in town gossips about.  Whatever it is, work it out in your local church and embody the biblical theology you confess together.

I don’t suggest ignoring the large-scale, public affects of uniquely-gifted pastors and churches.  I am suggesting that we not substitute them for Jesus’ prescribed means of loving and obeying him: the local church.  But then again, a small town, small church pastor would say that, wouldn’t he?

Seeing God in the Outflow of His Abiding Love in the Church

No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us (1 Jn 4.12).

In the middle of a literary “love” feast John peculiarly injects the statement that God has forever been unseen.  What does God being forever unseen have to do with God’s radiating love?  Why would John seemingly interrupt a glorious foray into God’s love with the fact that “ain’t no one ever seen God”?  He did so to elevate the power of God’s love displayed in the church to manifest God’s presence.  Though God has never been seen by anyone, his abiding presence is still nevertheless experienced through his perfecting love in the Christian community.

How can we be sure that someone we’ve never seen really lives in our house and loves us?  We see the effects of their presence in the precious gifts they regularly leave for our joy.  How can we be sure of God’s abiding presence and everlasting love?  “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us” (1 Jn 4.16a) in the abiding presence of God displayed in his love among his children (v11).  “We know (the) love [lit. ten agapen] by this: that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3.16).  We know God’s love (and see God’s abiding presence) in the life-laying-down ministry of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We know God abides in us by the Spirit he has given us (1 Jn 3.24; 4.13), the very Spirit who confesses Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world (4.14-15).  The very Spirit who manifests God’s love in the joyful, sacrificial love among the saints (4.21).

Therefore, I humbly submit:

1.  Without a local church you can neither know nor believe the love God has for you to the extent God intends.  A deeply-entrenched commitment to the local church is necessary to see God’s love manifest in us.  God hasn’t left us to imagine he loves us, but to tangibly experience and taste his perfecting love in the Spirit-filled ministry of brothers and sisters in the local church.  Those distant from the new covenant community struggle to see, know, believe, glory in God’s love for them.    They’re left to imagine what God’s love might be like rather than tasting what it really is.  How would Jesus minister to you if he were physically here?  He would do what his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters now do in his name.

2.  Without a local church you can neither know nor believe you love God to the extent God deserves.  A key evidence that you are born of God is that you lay down your life for your brothers (and sisters).  The local church is the necessary context in which life-laying-down ministry is cultivated.  Left to ourselves, our life-laying-down ministry consists in some holiday charity work or taking the hypothetical bullet for a hypothetical believer.  But in the local church we’re provided and urged toward the daily ministry of giving our lives away to our brothers and sisters in Christ; and thus provided the constant assurance we’re really born of God.  How would you minister to Jesus if he were physically here?  You would treat him how you now treat his Spirit-filled brothers and sisters (i.e., the “manifesters” of God’s abiding presence in Christ).

3.  Life-laying-down ministry is more than taking the proverbial bullet for your fellow church member.  Jesus did more than “just” die for his people.  He lived for them until he died for them (1 Pt 2.21-25).  He laid down his life in every respect for them.  He emptied himself of all self-advantage in order to become a bondservant to men, even unto death (Phil 2.5-11).  At his own expense, he spent time on them, fed them, touched them, healed them, comforted them, taught them, encouraged them, exhorted them and confronted them.  Our life-laying-down ministry is to look the same.  We don’t pursue our own agendas and stop every so often to serve folks.  Because Jesus bought us and now indwells us, our agenda is service to the brethren.

Though not commending all of Richard Foster’s thoughts, I am impressed by these from his classic Celebration of Discipline:

“When we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable” (p132).

“If our goods are not available to the community when it is clearly right and good, then they are stolen goods” (p89).

Brothers and sisters don’t steal, they give.  They lay down their lives for each other.  And in so doing they leave tokens of God’s love in Christ for the world to enjoy.

Prayer and Pain

During our congregational prayer gathering last night my beautiful-in-every-sense-of-the-word wife thanked God for affliction.  It’s one thing to read Piper on suffering or digest Brainerd from afar.  But it’s of a another other order when I am driven to God’s throne to celebrate the pain he builds into my life.  Oh, what grace there is in congregational prayer!  A thousand sermons on suffering having nothing on hearing a sister thank God for affliction.  A library of books on prayer cannot hold a candle to the growth provided by being with God’s people in prayer.  Do you want to grow in the depth, effects, and joy of your prayer life?  Get around Christians who pray deeply, biblically and painfully.  Listen to their vocabulary and long for their heart.  When we listen to brothers and sisters pray we’re not eavesdropping on a conversation.  We’re part of it.

Please allow a momentary detour.  In commanding our (plural) devotion to prayer, Paul immediately commands alert thanksgiving (Col 4.2; cf. Eph 6.18).  He’d heard the story about Peter and the boys catnapping while Jesus sweat bloody bullets for them.  He didn’t want that happening on his watch and therefore he commanded us the same attention to prayer Jesus did them (Mt 26.41).  Does “alert” describe how we listen to prayer?  Are we joining in our brother’s invocation with alert thanksgiving?  Are we shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-t0-heart with him before our God?  Are we paying attention to both what our sister prays and how she prays it?  Are we like a sentinel, keeping a careful watch on the flanks so that Satan doesn’t sneak in with stealth temptation?  Are we guarding our brother with gratitude that God hears us when we pray?  Do we pepper our sister’s prayer with the “amen” of our heart . . . so let it be?  Do we join them in their inner room so that our Secret Father will grant them a hearty reward (Mt 6.6)?

Or, are we strangely sleepy when the heads bow?  Do we get uncomfortable and twitchy?  Do we find ourselves thinking of anything else but what is being spread out before God’s face?  Are we antsy when “so-and-so” prays because we know it’s going to be a while?  Do we get bored (i.e. unalert) and resentful (i.e. ungrateful)?  Do we get impatient so that a few minutes in prayer seems like a few hours?  Given a thousand days at Disneyland (or Daytona or Pebble Beach or Macy’s) or a day in God’s courts with God’s people, which one would we instinctly choose?  Do we want the church praying for us but find it hard to join the church in praying for others?  Indeed, Lord, teach us to pray (Lk 11.1).

As I was saying . . .

Through my wife’s prayer I was driven to God’s throne to thank him for the pain he builds in my life.  God should be absolutely, regularly and joyfully thanked for the result that he works in our lives through pain and affliction.  But this doesn’t go far enough.  It’s easy to thank God for the ends, even if we’re not grateful for the means to those ends.  We can love what God does but hate how he does it.  Our heart’s prayer (because we’d never say it out loud!) might sound something like: “God, I’m grateful that you’ve produced new joy in my life, but I am not no sure you had to drag me through what you did to do so.  Next time please use other means.”  We strangely exalt God while we’re begrudging him.

We don’t merely thank God for the product of pain, but for the very pain itself which is the only means by which the godly product comes.  There is no glory in Christ that is not forged by the cross of Christ (Phil 3.10f; 1 Pt 4.13).  So we don’t glory in merely being conformed to Jesus, but in everthing that goes into conforming us.  We don’t thank God for the resurrection even if he happened to choose the cross (as opposed to other options) to get there.  We thank God for the cross so that there would be a resurrection.  We thank God for death so there can be new life.

Through my wife’s prayer I’m compelled to consider the following:

“But it is still my consolation, and I rejoice in unsparing pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6.10).

Not only do we exult in the hope of the glory of God, but “we also exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5.3).  We don’t simply exult in the hope that our tribulations produce (v5), but in the tribulations themselves which are the only means by producing the never-disappointing hope.

“Therefore I am well content with my weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.10).  We’re not content only when Christ’s power is made perfect (v9), but we’re well content in the purposeful difficulties themselves.

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jas 1.2).  We don’t reserve joy until the perfect product emerges (v4), but rejoice when painful the process begins!

“. . . to the degree that you share in the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exaltation” (1 Pt 4.13).  Our future enjoyment of Christ has a direct (not inverse) relationship to the degree we joyfully suffer now (see also 1 Pt 1.6-9; cf. 2 Cor 4.17-18).

We’re to be neither sadistic (as though we enjoy affliction in itself) nor stoic (as if affliction is not really painful).  But insofar as God builds pain in our life we’re to be thankful for it because God has made it useful.  We don’t reserve praise until we know God has worked affliction for our good, but we praise him for any and all means that will lead to that good.

So thank you, my dear wife-who-is-also-my-sister, for thanking God for affliction.  Today is far better for it.

Digging Wells

Does not the gospel call into fellowship those whom a society divides? There, side by side, should we not see the rich and the poor, men and women, powerful and marginalized, boomer and nonboomer all united in the same Christ by whom they have all been bought? (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, p57).

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise (Gal 3.28-29).

The church is the glorious display of Christ’s power to do what no other person can do.  Jesus unites folks in the church who otherwise have little to do with each other in the world.  The world organizes us into categories.  Middle class and low class.  Blue collar, white collar, and no collar.  Those on the fast track and those from the other side of the tracks.  The well-to-do and the ne’er-do-wells.  Homeschoolers and public schoolers.  Democrat and Republican.  Tell it your name the world has a category for you and how your category is to relate to the others.

In the church, though, the gospel so transforms how we understand (or love) each other that the dividing lines are erased.  The PhD is comfortable singing God’s praises next to the GED student.  The stay-at-home mom is as joyful to share the cup with the widow who had to go back to work.  The burger-flipping, floppy-haired teenager feels right at home with the local bank president.  The former Black Panther shares the same loaf with the former Skinhead.   The homeschooling mom prays just as fervently for  the single, working mom.  Children enjoy the same Word as their parents (Eph 6.1-4; Col 3.18-21).  Slaves stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their masters (Eph 6.5-9; Col 3.22-4.1).

We may run in different circles in the world but we all bow at the same cross in the church.  We may have nothing in common while having Everything in common.  We may look and live differently outwardly, but we all suffer the same guilt, earn the same wage for our sin and all desperately need the same grace to overcome it.

Paul had no category of a cowboy church, GenX church, children’s church, purpose-driven church, ancient-future church, or emergent church anymore than he did a Jewish church or Gentile church.  In fact, it was precisely such distinctions he died to obliterate.  There is one body (Eph 4.4).  It is our responsibility to fit into that one body, not demand it fit into us.