Friday, March 30, 2012

Don't Sell God Short

Christians often refer to themselves as "sinners," and while it's true that we all have sinned and will likely sin again in the future, I'm afraid that we sometimes see ourselves as only slightly improved from our former sinful selves, and only slightly "cleaner" than the sinners of the world. I think that sometimes we feel compelled to beat ourselves up. We think that being humble means having a very low self-image. We see ourselves as an already muddy pond, and when we sin, we're just tossing in another dirt-clod. After all, we're sinners. On a spiritual level, we're stained and marred.

There are several consequences of this mindset.

FIRST of all, when we see ourselves in this light, I think we tend to be more tolerant of sin. After all, if I'm just a miserable sinner - helpless and hopeless - then...isn't it just a given that I'm going to sin again. And when I do, well, "I'm human," right? Just tossing another dirt clod into an already muddy pond.

Think about it in terms of raising children. If you are constantly criticizing your children, pointing out their shortcomings and having such low expectations of them, what effect will that have on them? They're going to be depressed. Why should they try to please you if you can't be pleased? Why should they try to be good when you're constantly telling them that they're not good, and that they can't be good?

But when you encourage them, when you establish a relationship with them, when you love them and praise them for the good they do, then suddenly they have incentive to please you, don't they? Yes, they need to know that disobedience is a bad thing, and there needs to be consequences for disobedience, but at the same time, they need to appreciate the value of fellowship. There needs to be that positive reinforcement.

The SECOND danger to having this low self-image as Christians (and this is the point of the article), is that we're selling God short. Here's the question: does God mean it when He says that He forgives us?

When a person becomes a Christian, notice what happens to their sins:
"And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).
When the sinner is baptized, God saves them...but in saving the sinner, their sins are washed away. Other places, such as Acts 2:38, speaks of the "remission of sins" that occurs at baptism. Remission is forgiveness. So when the alien sinner comes to Christ in faith and obeys the gospel, their sins are forgiven and washed away. Completely. Totally. Absolutely. Right?

And the same is true when a Christian sins and does what is necessary to obtain God's forgiveness. Notice the following statement in 1 John 1:9...
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Do Christians sin? Yes. We sometimes do. But we're told that when we repent and confess our sins to the Lord in prayer, that our sins are forgiven. Completely. Totally. Absolutely. Right?

When God forgives us of our sins, are we still a muddy pond? Are we still stained and marred? What is the "forgiven-state," or condition, like? To what extent are we forgiven and cleansed?

Two verses...
"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deceit" (Psalm 32:1-2).
David, in describing the forgiven-state, says that God "does not impute iniquity." The ESV renders the verse this way: "Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity." In other words, your criminal record is wiped completely clean.

And then there's this gem from Isaiah 1:18:
"'Come now, and let us reason together,' says the Lord, 'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.'"
When God saves us, He forgives us, and when He forgives us, He forgives us completely, totally, absolutely. In that state (of being forgiven), we are SINLESS. We are not a muddy pond anymore. We are pure. We are clean. We are holy. And it's not because of anything we've done to earn such a status; it's because of God's cleansing power and the effectiveness of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Please, grasp this point, because it has the potential to change your entire outlook as a Christian. Not only will you develop a deeper admiration of God, but you will better understand the value of fellowship. After all, when you sin, you're not tossing just another dirt-clod into muddy water; you're muddying up good, clear, crisp water. It's not just another sin on top of all the other sins you've committed. It's a brand new sin and a brand new blemish on a clean record. It's not as if God's been putting up with you with all your impurity and sin, and this is just one more sin to add to the stack. You've been "walking in the light" with God, sinless and pure, and this new sin is violating that fellowship.

Yes, we need to feel extreme guilt when we sin. Go back and read all of Psalm 32 and you'll see a wonderful example of how David felt when he was separated from God. It was painful. It was horrible. It affected the man physically. Shouldn't we all feel horrible when we sin, knowing that SIN is why Jesus had to go to the cross. Our sins! Sin is not just kinda bad. It's awful.

But here's the point: as horrible as it is to sin and to be separated from God, it is equally if not more amazing to have fellowship with God. When we are in that forgiven state, we need to accept and trust what God says: that we have been completely forgiven and we are "blessed" to be one with Him.

Yes, be humble. Yes, be on guard against sin. Yes, be patient with yourself as you grow and with others as they grow. None of us are Jesus - only Jesus lived a sinless life. We have sinned and we probably will sin. It is critical that we accept these facts.

But don't sell God short, either. Believe what He says. And value that forgiven state. Cherish it. Relish it. Maintain it. Are we sinners? In a sense, yes. But there's a huge difference between Christians and the world:
"We know that whoever is born of God does not sin: but he who has been born of God keeps himself and the wicked one does not touch him" (1 John 5:18).
When you sell God short, you sell yourself short. And when you sell yourself short, you sell God short. It's a visious cycle that too many Christians have fallen into.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unbelievers & God's Marriage Law

Two days ago, I wrote an article on The Bondage of 1 Corinthians 7:15. Some have the belief that if you're married to a non-Christian and they divorce you, that you're free to remarry. After all, Paul says that when the unbeliever leaves, you're "not under bondage" anymore. I do not hold to that belief. It is my understanding that marriage is for life (Mt. 19:6; 1 Cor. 7:10), and that the only exception is divorce for the cause of adultery (Mt. 5:32; 19:9). If one is divorced for any other reason and then remarries, the result, according to our Lord, is an adulterous relationship. There is no second exception found in 1 Corinthians 7:15. A person does not have the right to remarry on the grounds that their unbelieving spouse left them.

As is often the case, when I study a subject, or write an article on a difficult topic such as this, I often think of other points later on that I wish I had thought of before. After I wrote the aforementioned article two days ago, I started thinking about how this false interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15 assumes that unbelievers are not bound to God's marriage law. In other words, if Paul is saying that you are free to remarry if and when your unbelieving spouse leaves you, then is he not saying that God's marriage laws do not hold the same power over unbelievers, and that somehow a marriage where at least one spouse is an unbeliever is not viewed as stringently by God. There are, of course, those who do take this position, but I would contend that those who falsely interpret 1 Corinthians 7:15 (to mean that a Christian can remarry if their non-Christian spouse divorces them) must necessarily take this position as well.

Now, much could probably be said about this issue, but the other day, as these thoughts and realizations came to me, I immediately thought of King Herod.
"For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Jerod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" (Mark 6:17-18).
And then just a few minutes ago, I thought of the woman at the well in John 4:
"Jesus said to her, 'Go, call your husband, and come here.' The woman answered and said, 'I have no husband.' Jesus said to her, 'You have well said, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband" (John 4:16-18).
What these two passages prove is that unbelievers ARE bound to God's marriage laws. Herod was a wicked man, and yet John told him that he had no right to his brother's wife. The woman at the well was a Samaritan, and the Samaritans were not obedient to God, and yet Jesus criticized her (albeit subtly) for her marriage situation. Unbelievers and apostates, even when they are ignorant of God's marriage laws, are still bound to them. Remember the words of Paul in Acts 17:30: "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent."

So if unbelievers and believers are equally bound to God's marriage laws, then a marriage is just as legitimate and just as complete whether the two partners are both Christians, both unbelievers...or one of each. If this is the case - and I believe it is - then I think this will help us to properly interpret 1 Corinthians 7:15. Paul cannot be saying that if your unbelieving spouse leaves or divorces you that you are free to remarry. As I pointed out in that last article, Paul is simply saying that you are not obligated to fulfill your marriage responsibilities anymore, and that the burden of "sanctifying them" is no longer yours. In such a situation, you must remain unmarried or be reconciled to your spouse.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Bondage of 1 Corinthians 7:15

Whole books have been written on the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage (MDR for short), but I’m going to quickly overview the subject here in this opening paragraph. First of all, the New Testament, contrary to conventional wisdom, promotes the permanency of marriage. In Matthew 19:6, Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” Marriage is a lifelong commitment, “till death do us part.” Indeed, the marriage bond is not severed until the death of one’s spouse. “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband” (Romans 7:2). This point is echoed in 1 Corinthians 7:39. To show how serious this issue is, the scriptures reveal that if a person violates the permanent marital bond by divorcing their spouse and then remarrying, they are guilty of adultery (Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Rom. 7:3). So these are the basic rules: 1) marriage is for life, 2) divorce is wrong, 3) death severs the bond of marriage, and 4) to divorce and remarry is to commit adultery. However, there is one exception: divorce is always wrong except when you divorce your spouse for the cause of adultery (Matthew 19:9). If you divorce your spouse for the cause of adultery, you are free also to remarry (assuming that you marry someone who also has the right to marry). It may sound complicated, but it really isn’t…and it especially isn’t complicated when folks respect their marriage vows and stick to God’s plan.

Having said that, is there a second exception in addition to adultery? Is there another instance where a married person can endure a divorce and lawfully remarry? Some would answer in the affirmative, pointing to 1 Corinthians 7:15. Let’s read this verse in context:

“But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

Some believe, based on verse 15, that if a Christian is married to an unbeliever, or non-Christian, and the unbeliever divorces the Christian, that the Christian is free to remarry. After all, when the unbeliever leaves the Christian, the Christian is no longer “under bondage.” This must refer to the marriage bond. Since the Christian is freed from the marriage bond, it is inferred that they are free to remarry. Although this conclusion is not unreasonable, I do believe that it is wrong…and very dangerous.

In order that we might understand what this verse really means, we have to study the context. After all, this verse doesn’t stand alone, and I’m afraid that some folks are grabbing onto the phrase “not under bondage” and applying it in such a way that Paul never intended.

Please notice that Paul is in no way discussing divorce and remarriage here in this passage. The apostle’s not talking about marital problems that culminate in divorce—the non-Christian divorces his/her Christian spouse and the now-divorced Christian is free to remarry. Nothing is actually said about remarriage here. In fact, if we’re going to be technical, there is no specific reference to divorce.

So what is Paul saying in this passage?

Well, there is an obvious theme, beginning in verse 12. Paul affirms what our common-sense tells us: being married to an unbeliever is challenging. In fact, in other places, it is inferred that we ought not marry unbelievers at all (1 Cor. 7:39; 9:5; 2 Cor. 6:14-18). But perhaps these were folks who had already been married when they became Christians and sadly, their spouses refused to adopt the faith of Christ. Or maybe these were Christians who, against the advice and wisdom of scripture, had married an unbeliever anyways and now were faced with the consequences of such a perilous union. Maybe it was “love,” or the hope that they could convert their unbelieving spouse in time. Whatever the case may be, these were believers that were married to unbelievers…and it wasn’t easy.

Paul urged these Christians not to divorce their unbelieving spouse. The implication is that this must have been something that these Christians were considering as an option, and I can understand why they were tempted to take this route. Think about it. An unbelieving spouse is going to be a constant source of temptation: tempting you to sacrifice your values and to abandon your faith. During the first century, persecution posed a serious threat. If you were a Christian and your faith “threatened” the family’s safety, your spouse would probably encourage you to give it up for the sake of the family. This could easily have resulted in DAILY fights. You’re wanting to go on the offensive, to convert your spouse, to convince them to adopt the faith of the Lord, but all too often, you’re forced to defend your faith, to explain your reasons for embracing such a dangerous and illogical religion. These are the very reasons that Paul told the Corinthians later (in the same chapter) that there was wisdom in remaining unmarried “because of the present distress” of the times (vs. 26). Having a family during a period of instability and intense persecution would pose many challenges, especially if your spouse was an unbeliever.

Add to that the presence of children. If your spouse is an unbeliever, they’ve got influence over your children. You want to keep your children safe. You want to raise them in the “training and admonition” of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). These objectives might seem unreachable if your spouse is an unbeliever and is resentful of your faith.

So it’s easy to see why a Christian might consider divorcing their unbelieving spouse, especially during a time of “distress.” It’s not that the Christian doesn’t respect the permanency of marriage—they would love to convert their spouse and remain married—but human reasoning might lead an honest believer to conclude that divorce would be “the lesser of two evils.” Paul, however, warned against this train of thought. He told the Christians to remain married to these unbelievers. First of all, the marriage bond was permanent and they were bound by God to remain in the relationship. God had joined those two individuals together, and man was not to separate that bond (Mt. 19:6). Second, as Paul articulates here in 1 Corinthians 7, there was always the possibility that you might convert your spouse by your example. It would even be better for your children, Paul says (perhaps the Christian spouse would be at a legal disadvantage if a divorce were to occur; in an anti-Christian society, the unbeliever would be more likely to gain custody of the children; I don’t know).

As challenging as it might be, the Christian was to remain married. They were to continue to live with their spouse (vs. 12-13). They were to sanctify their unbelieving spouse and children by setting a daily example of Christian excellence and purity (see 1 Peter 3:1-4).

But that didn’t prevent the unbelieving spouse from hitting the road, and Paul wants to make it very clear that under such circumstances—if the unbeliever leaves—the Christian spouse is not required (under bondage) to chase them and “make it work.” In other words, Christian husbands/wives were to remain devoted to the marriage and were to make every effort to sanctify (convert) their family, but if, despite your best efforts, your spouse leaves you and your family is torn asunder, there’s nothing else you can do; you’re no longer “enslaved” (under bondage) to your spouse, and all of those marital responsibilities cease.

Why does Paul stress this to such an extent? Why does he go out of his way to assure the Christian that he/she is “not under bondage” and that “God has called us to peace” (vs. 15b)? Paul had just urged them to stay with their unbelieving spouse and to make every effort to convert them to Christ, but as you might imagine, one might take that too far. A Christian, whose unbelieving spouse has left, or is threatening to leave, might resort to pleas of desperation, bribery, and debate; they might pursue their spouse and insist on the family staying together. There might be the pangs of guilt and self-loathing. Why couldn’t I convert them? What could I have done differently? I am such a failure! Now my children will assuredly be lost!

The apostle, here in verse 15, when he tells these Christians that they’re “not under bondage” in such cases, is simply echoing a principle found elsewhere in scripture. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Even in 1 Peter 3:1-4, wives are told not to nag their husbands to the point of conversion, but to exemplify their faith on a daily basis. Sometimes, there’s not much you can say to someone that will convince them to accept the gospel; all you can do is quietly and peacefully live out your faith, hoping that, over time, your pure conduct and unwavering convictions will impact them. Again, God has called us to peace, and that includes the manner in which we try to win souls.

So the phrase “not under bondage” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 has nothing to do with the marriage bond itself, nor does it imply that a Christian, who has been divorced by their unbelieving spouse, is permitted to remarry. These points are evident by a careful examination of the context.

In fact, just a few verses earlier, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul wrote, “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: a wife is not to depart from her husband. But if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” If a person finds themselves in a divorce situation, or in a situation where their spouse has left them, or they have left their spouse, there are just two options: remain unmarried or be reconciled. While separated from your spouse, you’re not obligated to fulfill the usual marriage duties, but nor are you free to remarry some other person. Why would Paul forbid remarriage in verse 11 but then permit remarriage (even though nothing is actually said about remarriage) just a few verses later in verse 15?

Finally, sometimes a position (which is already weak) can be proven false by the natural consequences that stem from it. In other words, an unstable doctrine will have exponentially unstable effects. For example, I can already see Christians using this doctrine to justify marrying non-Christians. “If it doesn’t work out, and we get a divorce, I’m free to remarry based on 1 Corinthians 7:15,” or what about the new Christian who’s spouse has not yet been converted? It sounds like God’s marriage plan does not apply to this new Christian the same way it’s applied to everyone else? Or what if you’re Christian spouse leaves the faith and becomes an unbeliever? This false interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15 is basically saying that God’s plan for marriage is only applicable when both spouses are devout Christians (and remain so). If one is an unbeliever, or if one becomes an unbeliever, then God’s marriage laws are thrown out the window, or at least weakened considerably.

As we study difficult passages such as this, we have to lay our emotions aside and embrace the position that is most consistent with the context and the rest of the inspired record. With this issue—with any issue regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage—we must not make such major decisions (who to marry) when we are not confident that the relationship is absolutely permissible by God. As Jesus says back in Matthew 19:12—and I’m paraphrasing here—there are some people who will have to remain unmarried “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” not because they have taken a vow of celibacy necessarily, but because of difficult circumstances that have made it impossible for them to be lawfully joined to another in marriage.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Dangers of Rationalization

Rationalization is defined in the Encarta Dictionary as follows: "to attempt to justify behavior normally considered irrational or unacceptable by offering an apparently reasonable explanation."

This word has obvious spiritual applications, especially as it relates to matters of temptation and sin. In other words, people often rationalize sin. Sin is bad. Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2), leads to spiritual death (Romans 6:23) and is what prompted God to send His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer an agonizing death on the cross for the sins of the world (John 3:16; Romans 5:8).

And yet the appeal of sin is often strong, and in moments of weakness, we find ourselves justifying the sin, or making it out to be less bad. Perhaps we feel that we deserve this sin, or that God will understand, or that "we're just human, after all."

Or maybe we rationalize sin by comparing it to a sin that we feel is worse. Have you ever done this? I know some folks in the Bible who rationalized sin in this manner.

Consider the story of Joseph from Genesis 37:
"Now when they [Joseph's brothers] saw him [Joseph] afar off, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to KILL him" (vs. 18).
"So Judah said to his brothers, 'What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.' And his brothers listened" (vs. 26-27).
Joseph's brothers had come to despise him. They were envious of the fact that he was their father's favorite son. They were enraged by Joseph's account of his dreams; the notion that he would actually rule over them and that they would bow down to him...was absurd, foolish and unthinkable. Their bitterness had gradually morphed into anger, and then rage, and now they were on the verge of murdering Joseph.

Maybe they were all feeling a little guilty, or at least hesitant to carry out the crime. As much as they hated him, perhaps they were just a wee bit uncomfortable with the thought of murdering him. Or maybe it was just Judah who was hesitant. I don't know. What I do know is that Judah is the one that spoke up, and this is where we find the instance of rationalization.

Was it sinful to harbor such bitter feelings toward Joseph? Yes. Was it sinful to have such thoughts of violence? Yes. Was it sinful to sell Joseph to the Midiante traders? Absolutely. But on the other hand, they had been prepared to murder him. So in comparison, selling Joseph into slavery wasn't nearly as bad; in fact, it was a rational alternative to murder.

I can almost see Joseph's brothers feeling pretty proud of themselves for having taken the higher road. Almost a sigh of relief. Maybe there was a hint of guilt, but it was nothing compared to the guilt they would have had if they had actually murdered him in cold blood. Now Reuben wasn't a part of this sinister scheme, and I'm not sure that Benjamin was either (he may have stayed at home, being that he was the youngest), but at least nine of Joseph's brothers "justified behavior normally viewed as unacceptable by offering a rational explanation" or alternative. They rationalized their sin by comparing it to the "worse" sin of murder.

We sometimes do this very thing.
"At least I'm not as bad as other people."
"At least I didn't do __________" (fill in the blank with a sin that we think is worse).
"I've done worse things in my life."
What's that? You want me to be more specific. Okay.

Example #1: According to Matthew 5:28, "Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." And yet Christians sometimes rationalize lust by saying, "At least I didn't commit fornication," or, "At least we didn't go all the way," or, "Everyone does it" (referring to kissing, making-out, spooning, know, "normal" boyfriend/girlfriend behavior). Folks, lust is wrong, and it's no less wrong than the sin of fornication.

Example #2: Galatians 5:22-23 says, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." And yet sometimes Christians rationalize harsh and rude behavior by saying, "Well, at least I didn't yell," or, "At least I didn't hit 'em." We see violence as worse than rude behavior. We think that it's worse to make a scene than it is to slip them a snide, unkind remark. We pat ourselves on the back for having such self-control when all we've done is rationalized sin by contrasting what we did to what we could have done (which, in our minds, would have been "worse"),

Example #3: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Oftentimes, Christians settle for half of the equation. They put such effort into outward worship, and so therefore it's okay that they don't feel that passion for the Lord inwardly. OR...they feel such passion for the Lord inwardly, and they feel so good about their worship, and so spiritual, so therefore it doesn't really matter that their worship is based in human tradition rather than divine truth. As John 4:24 says, in order for our worship to be acceptable to God, we must worship in spirit as well as in truth. Anything less than this is insufficient.

Many other examples could be given, but suffice it to say, sin is sin. Let's not give into the temptation to rationalize one sin by comparing it to something "worse." Such a disposition will only lead us away from God and salvation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

An Interesting Example of Irreverence

How would you define irreverence? Not being reverent, or respectful, right? Okay, so in terms of our relationship with God, to be irreverent is to be disrespectful, perhaps arrogant, blasphemous and/or nonchalant. Examples might include: using God's name in vain, mocking God and His word, verbally challenging God, acting as if God owes us, and even disobedience (especially when it is intentional or willful).

As I was studying the Bible this morning, it occurred to me that there is another way in which we can be irreverent toward God. Notice 1 Samuel 6:19-20...
"Then He struck the men of beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the Lord had struck the people with a great slaughter. And the men of Beth Shemesh said, 'Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? And to whom shall it go up from us?"
To provide a wee bit of context, the Philistines had captured the ark of God, but because God had afflicted them when it was in their possession, the Philistines decided to send it back to the Israelites. The ark of the covenant was delivered back to the Israelites by two milk cows and a cart. It promptly arrived in the town of Beth Shemesh, and as you might imagine, the Israelites (who had been extremely upset when it was captured) were elated to have it back among them. They "rejoiced to see it" (1 Sam. 6:13).

One might say that the Hebrews of Beth Shemesh were reverent toward God. They were spiritually-minded enough to desire the ark's presence and to offer the milk cows as a sacrifice unto God upon the ark's return. However, they became irreverent (even if it was in ignorance) when they opened the ark of God to peer inside. God was so displeased with them that he struck down 50,070 people.

Why do you think the citizens of Beth Shemesh looked inside the ark?

I assume that they wanted to know what was inside. These common people had perhaps never seen the ark before, had never had access to it (for it had always been kept by the levites), so their curiosity was understandably aroused. They just wanted to see experience it for themselves...even though (and this was the problem), it was not their right to see it, to know, to experience it, etc.

Now for the application.

There are a lot of things today that we do not know, things that we don't understand about God. What is heaven like? What is hell like? How is God working in this situation, or in that situation? What is God's reason for doing this, or that? What does it mean for God to inhabit eternity? How did God come to exist? And so on. You get the point, I'm sure.

The point is, there are a lot of things that we don't know because God has decided that we don't need to know those things. We're not given all the answers or all the reasons. Perhaps there are some things that we'll understand once we enter the realm of eternity. Maybe not. The fact is, it's not our business, and we don't need to concern ourselves with things that aren't our business.

I don't know that this is a widespread problem, but certainly I have seen this kind of irreverence before. Maybe there have even been times where I have fallen short in this manner. In Bible classes and in sermons, as we read spiritual books, as we study ourselves and read what other men have said about God's word (i.e. commentaries), let us not get carried away with presumptions or theories.
"Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out" (Rom. 11:33).
"So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17).
God has told us everything we need to know to have faith in Him. Let's be content with what has been revealed, and leave the rest up to an all-knowing, all-powerful God who is wiser, smarter, bigger, stronger and higher than ANY of us.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Challenging the "Challenging" Excuse

Let's begin this article by quoting a lesser-known scripture of the Bible:
"Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord speak, saying, 'The Lord has utterly separated me from His people'; nor let the eunuch say, 'Here I am, a dry tree.' For thus says the Lord: 'To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, even to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, and be His servants - everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant - even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer" (Isaiah 56:3-7).
You still with me? Good! Now, let's study this passage and make some application to the lives of 21st century Christians.

The above passage describes circumstances in the land of Israel during Old Testament times. As you know, the Israelites were God's chosen people. They were blessed above all the nations of the earth, and had special access to God's revealed law, the Law of Moses. However, it would be wrong to assume that each and every Israelite had the same ease of faith. For the most part, yes, the members of the Israelite community were raised in faithful Jewish homes, got married, raised kids, made a living...and had normal lives. But this was not always the case, as we learn in the passage above.

Isaiah describes two types of people whose circumstances were not typical. There were, for example, those who were not raised in Jewish homes, but had converted to the Hebrew faith - we call these types of people "proselytes." These were Gentiles who did not have a Jewish lineage, but were so impressed with the God of Israel that they abandoned their pagan ancestry in pursuit of Hebrew faith.

Then Isaiah describes another class of people - eunuchs. A "eunuch" is, by definition, a castrated male that generally was enrolled in the service of the state. Often, these men would serve females, or be in the presence of female nobility, and so to prevent any "indiscretion," and to remove the temptation of promiscuity, they would be castrated. While the word may have different applications, one thing is sure: eunuchs were unmarried and thus had livesyles that were atypical.

Now, with both proselytes and eunuchs, there was the tempation to use their circumstances as an excuse to be spiritually weaker than their brethren. For example, the proselyte might conclude that because he wasn't raised in a Jewish home, he didn't have to be as strong, or try as hard, as the one who WAS raised by faithful Hebrew parents. Look at the proselytes upbringing: perhaps raised in a pagan environment, surrounded by immorality, and ignorant of the Law of Moses. Who would hold the proselyte to the same standard as the lifelong Hebrew?

Similarly, the eunuchs might've held themselves to a lower standard. Due to circumstances (often beyond their control), they were forced to lead lives of celibacy, and were often in positions of service, distracted by the rigors of their work. Perhaps these were eunuchs that, despite their Hebrew lineage and/or faith, were stuck in foreign palaces serving pagan monarchs. I don't know. Suffice it to say, the life of a "eunuch" was a difficult life. Even Jesus attested to this fact (Matthew 19:11-12).

But neither the proselyte nor the eunuch was given a free-pass by God; neither was allowed to excuse poor obedience or weak faith. And that's the whole point of Isaiah 56:3-7. One's circumstances may be less than ideal, but that doesn't mean that God has lower expectations for them, or that they can hold themselves to a lower standard.

The application is obvious, isn't it?

There are many Christians today who have been "raised in the church," who are happily married, and their circumstances are ideal. And then there are the rest of us who have had to deal with a variety of circumstances that are...again, less than ideal.

Not raised in the church. Not married to a strong Christian. Not married to a Christian at all. Divorced. Widowed. Member of a small, struggling congregation. Parents and/or siblings that have abandoned the faith. Coworkers that constantly pressure us to compromise our convictions. Poor. Fewer resources than other Christians (due to low income). Young. Old. Handicapped. "Unfulfilled." A lifelong disease or sickness that results in physical frailty. A privite, shy demeanor. Lack of education. Lack of Bible knowledge. New to the faith. Overbearing parents. Et cetera.

Get the point?

It's so very tempting to find some kind of excuse to cling justify our lack of spiritual excellence. But folks, just like the proselytes and eunuchs of old, we are just as obligated to "choose what pleases" God and to "hold fast" to His covenant (Isaiah 56:4). Rather than lowering the standard, let us push through the adverse circumstances that may afflict us, and strive to meet God's standard.

I'm not saying that some Christians haven't been blessed with wonderful circumstances, or that faith isn't more challenging for some, or that some of us don't have setbacks - what I'm saying is that, no matter what your circumstances might be, make every effort to please God.

Challenge the "challenging" excuse. In other words, don't fall prey to the temptation to use "challenging" circumstances" as an excuse for poor Christian performance.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Churches of Christ Greet You!

[This article is a continuation of an article I posted a few days ago called "My Journey of Faith." To read that article, click here.]

The average religious person likely views the church of Christ as just another denomination among thousands. This was certainly my perception at first, and so I don’t fault others for also seeing the church of Christ in the same light. Nevertheless, I would like to explain what the church of Christ is and how it is NOT a denomination.

Someone asked me not long ago, “How did the church of Christ get started?” The underlying assumption is that someone in recent history set up the church of Christ just like other men set up other denominations. We know that John and Charles Wesley, for example, were instrumental in the formation of the Methodist denomination. The efforts and influence of John Calvin led to the rise of the Presbyterian denomination. John Smythe and Roger Williams initiated the Baptist movement in the early 1600s. The Lutheran Church is named after a man named Martin Luther who lived in the 1500s. “So who started the church of Christ and when?” is the question.

It’s true that you can study American history (from a religious standpoint) and see a rise of so-called “churches of Christ” in the 19th century. You can read about men such as Alexander Campbell and “Raccoon John Smith,” and how these men were instrumental in what is called the “Restoration Movement.” But here’s the thing: if you were to ask me how the church of Christ started, I would not reference a movement in the 1800s; I would instead direct your attention to a movement in the first century, a movement that began with Jesus Christ and the apostles.

Jesus Himself said, “Upon this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18), the rock, or foundation, being the testimony that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God” (vs. 15-16; also 1 Corinthians 3:11). When was this church established?

“Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’ Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers…And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Ac 2:38-42, 47).

Peter and the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and preached the gospel for very first time, just as Jesus said they would (Luke 24:47). We’re told that 3,000 people obeyed the gospel, thereby making the transition from the “perverse generation” to “the church,” the very same church that Jesus had promised to establish in Matthew 16:18.

This church grew exponentially in Jerusalem under the leadership of the Spirit-filled apostles, from 3,000 to 5,000 (Acts 4:4), and from there we are simply told that believers were “increasingly added” (5:14) and multiplied (6:1). These first disciples were all united and together. There were no Baptists among them, no Episcopals, no Pentecostals or Catholics—they were simply believers who were bound by a mutual faith in the same Christ and a mutual obedience to the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42; 6:2-4). 

Christianity began in the city of Jerusalem, and we’ve seen the explosive growth of the Jerusalem church, but it didn’t remain there forever. Notice Acts 8:1…

“Now Saul was consenting to his [Stephen’s] death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”

As these Christians settled in new cities and regions throughout the world, new churches were established. We see Philip’s ministry in Samaria in Acts 8 and how the Samaritan disciples were organized afterward. Evidently, there was a church in Damascus where Saul was converted (Acts 9:18-19). We read about churches in Antioch (11:26), Corinth (18:8, 11), Caesarea (18:22) and Ephesus (20:17); there were also churches in Syria and Cilicia (15:41), Lystra, Iconium, Phrygia and Galatia (16:2-6).

Of course, based on other New Testament epistles, we know that there were churches in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1), Rome (Rom. 16:5), Judea (Gal. 1:22), Philippi (Phil. 1:1), Colosse (Col. 1:1), Laodicea (Col. 1:16), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1), Crete (Titus 1:5), Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13), Smyrna (Rev. 2:8), Pergamos (Rev. 2:12), Thyatira (Rev. 2:18), Sardis (Rev. 3:1) and Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7). These are only the churches that are specifically named in scripture; certainly, there were many, many others.

Were any of these churches all that different than the original church in Jerusalem? Apart from the location and the membership, all of these churches were roughly identical. As mentioned earlier, they were called “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). They all had the same doctrines (1 Cor. 4:17), the same worship (John 4:24; 1 Cor. 16:1), they engaged in the same types of activities (Rom. 15:25-26; 2 Cor. 11:8), and had the same type of organization (Ac. 14:23; Titus 1:5).

Speaking of organization, were these early churches centrally organized? Did they have a headquarters that sent out Bible class material and updates on doctrinal modifications? Were there annual conferences during which representatives from all the churches voted on policy-changes? We can answer all of these questions the same: with a resounding “NO!”

Each of the early churches was self-governing:

Paul speaking to the elders of the Ephesian church: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Peter writing to the elders of the church: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers…” (1 Peter 5:2).

Notice how each church was independent of every other church. The elders of one church did not govern another church, nor did one church govern all the churches in a region. Each church, from within itself, appointed qualified men to serve as elders (plural) over that church (singular). There was no “National Elders’ Council,” or any kind of annual elders’ convention. Again, churches were autonomous.

The question is: if all of the churches of the first century were autonomous and self-governing, how is it that they were all so similar? Why is it that if you worshiped with the church in Antioch one Sunday and the church in Caesarea a week later, that you had the same basic experience? How did they all preach and teach identical doctrines? What was the cause of such unity and oneness?

The answer is simple:

“…who will remind you [the Corinthian church] of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17).

“…that He might sanctify and cleanse her [the church] with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27).

“Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16).

“…but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

“Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

The local churches of the first century were united in the same way that the first Christians were united in Jerusalem: they followed the same standard of faith and doctrine! While it’s true that they didn’t have all 27 epistles, from Matthew-Revelation, bound together in one volume, they did have the apostles and prophets (Eph. 4:11), as well as the miraculous gift of knowledge (1 Cor. 13:8) to make up for the lack of a canon “till [they all came] to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:11-13; 1 Cor. 13:8-11). Furthermore, the epistles were being distributed from church to church (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27), and history confirms that these epistles were copies and distributed even further by Christian scribes. But the fact remains that the early churches were so similar because they followed a common standard.

Dear reader, it is no different today. If someone in America picks up a Bible and they read it from cover to cover, and they study it, and obey it precisely, and folks in Europe and Africa and Asia do the same thing, the results will be practically the same. You will have churches that worship the same way, teach the same things, engage in the same activities, and share the same type of organization, and it won’t be because some central headquarters told them all what to do—it will be because they have all submitted to the same pattern, the “doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9).

What hinders these results so often is the imposition of human opinions and traditions and desires, but again, humble obedience to THE standard will yield the same results.

Today, there are “churches of Christ” all over the world. I am personally aquainted with churches all over the southeastern United States, and I know Christians that live in every region in America. While I have not journeyed “across the pond” to Europe, Africa and Asia, I know many who have, and they speak of churches of Christ in those areas—in India, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Columbia, and so on.

What is amazing is that these congregations the world over are practically identical, just as the churches of the first century were identical. There is no central headquarters. No church governs another. There are no annual conferences and conventions. These churches are all autonomous, and yet they are the same because of an attitude of humble obedience that pervades each local body.

Does this mean that all groups that identify themselves as “churches of Christ” are identical? Not at all! Any church can choose to adopt the name, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have adopted all tenets of the doctrine of Christ. Even in the first century there were churches that had adopted certain false doctrines (Rev. 3:14-16), but those churches were rebuked by Christ and commanded to repent!

So, “who started the church of Christ, and when?” You can read all about it…in the New Testament of your Bible. I am not a member of a human denomination, but of an autonomous church of Christ, whose head is Christ, and whose only creed is the Bible. And you know, there are other churches out there like mine, just as there were in the first century.

The “church of Christ” didn’t originate in the 1800s; it originated in the city of Jerusalem in the first century and the “movement” spread from there. In the millennia since then, churches of Christ have existed whenever men and women decided that they were just going to follow Christ. There is no doubt in my mind that during the Dark Ages and the Renaissance era, from the days of the Inquisition to the American Revolution, churches of Christ existed in the shadows of corrupt Christendom. While famous Protestants such as John Calvin, Martin Luther and Charles Wesley were grabbing the headlines across Europe and America, faithful Christians were behind the scenes, working humbly and quietly to advance the unadulterated gospel.

I can’t tell you to visit the nearest “church of Christ” to learn more about pure New Testament Christianity, for not all so-called “churches of Christ” are the same. I’m not here to defend all congregations who wear that name. That would be a denominational way-of-thinking, and I repudiate such a mindset. However, if what I’ve written interests you, and if you’d like to know more, contact me and I’ll do everything I can to help you. My email address is, or learn more by visiting

Dear reader, open your heart to receive the truth, for only the truth is capable of setting you free (John 8:32).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Journey of Faith

I spent many years in the world of Christian denominationalism. For the most part, I was an active and committed Baptist, but I also participated in many activities sponsored by a local United Methodist Church. My affiliation to the Baptist church was on account of my family while my affiliation to the United Methodist church was on account of my best friend. I went to both Baptist and Methodist church camps, participated in recreational sports for both denominations nearly every year, and was extremely active in both youth groups. One year, I played the role of Jesus in an Easter skit in the Baptist church. At other times, I volunteered with my Methodist friends at the Kentucky State Fair, the Circus, and even a Billy Graham event in Louisville on one occasion. Of course, I visited other denominations and supported them just as I supported the Baptists and Methodists.

For those many years, I defined Christianity in terms of simple “faith” in Jesus Christ – nothing more and nothing less. It didn’t matter where you went to church, or how you worshiped, or even what you believed, so long as you identified yourself as a Christian and exalted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Not once did I question denominationalism itself. Never did it occur to me that any denomination might be wrong—at least not so wrong that they were outside of God’s fellowship. I was sincere. I was happy. I thought I was on the right path. In fact, I even considered going to a Baptist seminary at one time, and a Methodist college another time. As far as I knew, I would always be an active member of the denominational culture. After all, isn’t that what it means to be a Christian? Don’t Christianity and denominationalism go hand-in-hand? Who would say otherwise?

But then my paradigm began to change, slowly but surely, once I moved from Louisville to Lexington, Kentucky. My roommate was a member of the University Heights Church of Christ, and since I had already decided that I would get involved with a church in Lexington (instead of the party-life on campus), I was not only willing, but eager to go to church with him. I had never heard of the “Church of Christ,” but assumed that it would be just another denomination. I expected that there would be some differences, but that didn’t matter so long as these were God-loving, Christ-serving people. And they were!

I distinctly remember the first few times that I worshiped with the Church of Christ in Lexington. The only major difference that caught my attention at first was the lack of instrumental music in worship. No piano. No guitar. Just hundreds of people blending their voices together in praise of God. It was odd, but at the same time, it was beautiful, and I quickly concluded that if these people wanted to worship God without instruments, they had that right. They did observe the Lord’s Supper every week, but again, that was by no means a deal-killer; it didn’t bother me at all. And although I’m sure certain things stood out to me in the sermons and Bible classes, the messages were delivered with conviction and with the support of scripture. Besides, it was not unusual for me to worship and fellowship with Christians that did things a little differently—that is the essence of denominationalism. You know, “unity in diversity.”

At first, I merely noticed some of these differences, but over time, as I began to study with some of the members of the Church of Christ in Lexington, I came to understand the concept of New Testament Christianity and how far removed denominationalism was from the biblical pattern. Outwardly, as I studied and talked with my roommate, and with my new girlfriend and her family, I was, for the most part, calm though skeptical. Inwardly, though, I was becoming more and more distressed.

The kind folks at the University Heights Church of Christ advocated a return to simple New Testament Christianity. Of course, I was familiar with the New Testament as was I familiar with the concept of Christianity, but what I came to realize is that the Christianity that existed in the first century, that the New Testament articulates and exemplifies, is not the Christianity that we see represented by modern-day denominationalism. Allow me to clarify what I mean…

The Judaism of Jesus’ day was a lot like modern-day Christianity: divided. Just as we today have different denominations—Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal, just to name a few—the Jewish religion back then consisted of many different sects. There were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans, Zadokites, Herodians, and even the Zealots. Did the Law of Moses command the establishment of any of these groups? Do you ever read about the Pharisees in the book of Deuteronomy, or the Sadducees in Exodus? Of course not. Instead, all of these Jewish sects arose over the course of history, especially during the 400 years that transpired between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the life of Christ.

When Jesus was being raised in Nazareth, which of the Jewish denominations did He and his family join or support? The answer is “none of the above.” Jesus didn’t embrace the denominational system of His day. In fact, He denounced it.

“Then His disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do you not know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’ But He answered and said, ‘Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:12-14).

The Pharisees were a plant that God had not planted. Therefore, not only would the Pharisees be uprooted, those who followed the Pharisees would also share the same fate. I think it’s obvious that Jesus wouldn’t have limited this to the Pharisees, but would have applied this principle to ALL of the unauthorized Jewish sects. If the Jews wanted to be right with God, they had to be content to follow the Law of Moses only and to be faithful Hebrews according to God’s standard.

So Jesus didn’t respond to denominationalism by saying, “Join the sect of your choice.” He responded by condemning the division that is inherent in denominationalism and urging folks to get back to God’s system.

It is no surprise, then, that as Jesus prepared the apostles for the new covenant, He spoke, not of churches, but of THE church.

“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).

Jesus didn’t say, “On this rock I will build My churches,” or, “On these rocks, I will build My church,” or, “On these rocks I will build My churches.” He spoke of the establishment of ONE church—His church. And it was Jesus’ prayer that the members of this church would be perfectly united.

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21).

Jesus prayed that all believers be one.

Denominational people take this to mean that we ought to set aside our differences and work toward “unity in diversity.” It is believed that we can maintain our denominational system, and join the church of our choice, and believe what we want to believe, and worship how we want to worship—just be nice about it. For many, this is a very reasonable mindset that will yield the kind of unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

This may be the conventional wisdom of our day and age, but it’s wrong.

Notice how Jesus compares the unity of the disciples to the unity that exists between Him and the Father. In other words, the Godhead, or Trinity, if you will, is the model for Christian unity. Now, do you really think that Jesus and the Father have two different sets of beliefs and that they just “agree to disagree?” By no means! They have one mind and one purpose and are in perfect harmony with one another. Therefore, that is the unity that we must strive to have.

Furthermore, not only is the model of unity given in John 17:20-21, but the means of unity is given in verse 17: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” Believers are set apart from the world (sanctified) and united as one body based on adherence to a common standard, the word of God. The word of God (the Bible) is what reveals to us God’s will. By reading and understanding the scriptures (Ephesians 3:3-5), and by obeying the scriptures (James 1:21), our identity is lost in Christ and we develop sameness.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

“…fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).

“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).

Every aspect of a Christian’s life is affected by the teachings of Christ. The way we think. The way we feel. The way we approach marriage and child-rearing. Our political viewpoints. Our approach to relationships. Our work-ethic. Then, of course, there is the responsibility that Christians have to worship, to go to church, to pray, to study and meditate upon God’s word, and so on and so forth. The point is this: biblically speaking, as Christians, we deny ourselves (Matthew 16:24-25) and pursue the will of God, which is revealed in the scriptures—and if each and every believer does this, we necessarily will become identical in our faith and obedience, for there is just one Lord and one faith—ONE standard: the truth!

So it shouldn’t shock us to discover that the churches of the first century were, for the most part, identical.

“For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17).

“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also…” (1 Corinthians 16:1).

“So when they had appointed elders in every church…” (Acts 14:23).

“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you” (Titus 1:5).

“The churches of Christ greet you” (Romans 16:16).

Of course, many, many other verses could be cited to prove that the churches of the first century were given the same instructions and commands, but these few ought to suffice for now. Simply put, there were not different “types” of churches during the days of the apostles. If you went to church one Sunday in Corinth and then the following Sunday assembled with the church in Ephesus, you would have had the same basic experience. If you met the Christians in Antioch one week, and then the Christians in Lystra two weeks later, again, these Christians would have held to the same basic doctrines. The apostle Peter didn’t go around establishing Catholic churches, and Apollos, Baptist churches, and Paul, Presbyterian churches. As the above verses indicate, the churches of the first century had the same doctrines, the same type of organization, the same worship, the same designations, et cetera.

While the early churches were commanded to be unified, and while they were, for the most part, identical, it is also true that because the Christians then were imperfect creatures of free-will, problems and divisions did occasionally arise. In Corinth, for example, the disciples actually developed a denominational system within the Corinthian church. Notice how Paul reacted when He heard about this situation:

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,” or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Can’t you see how this denominational mindset of the Corinthians—which Paul condemned—is the very same denominational mindset that so many religious people today have? The only difference are the names of the denominations; today, we have Pentecostals, Lutherans, Episcopals, Southern Baptist, Free-Will Baptist, Missionary Baptist, and…well, you get the point. Paul didn’t applaud the Corinthians, he rebuked them; he begged them to stop being so divisive, and to be unified once more, and even called them “carnal” in 1 Corinthians 3:3.

So on one hand, you’ve got denominationalism—“modern Christianity,” as I call it. Jesus condemns human denominations in Matthew 15:12-15. Paul says that it’s carnal and antithetical to the oneness of Christ. It’s not at all authorized anywhere in the New Testament scriptures; in fact, in order for denominations to exist, there must be a splitting away from the scriptures.

On the other hand, there is New Testament Christianity. Jesus promised to set up one church, one body of believers united by a common standard—the word of God. New Testament Christianity takes the pattern of the scriptures seriously. We strive to teach just what the Bible says, to worship just as God instructs us to, to join a church that has only the Bible as its creed, to seek pure biblical organization, and privately, to pattern our thoughts, behaviors, and lifestyles according to the principles of the doctrine of Christ.

Yes, there are a lot of really good people in denominations. Yes, these folks are often sincere, devout, and morally-upstanding. Yes, many of these people read their Bibles and even believe that they are following the Bible. When they worship, they often lift up their hands in praise, and tears stream forth as they joyfully anticipate the final return of Jesus Christ. All I can say in response to such an emotional plea is exactly what Paul said of the Jews of the first century:

“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:1-2).

And also the word of Christ in Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”

Perhaps you can see now why my paradigm shifted when I encountered the church of Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. They advocated New Testament Christianity, and while I mocked it at first and stubbornly held onto my denominational upbringing, I eventually realized that it was useless to fight against God. So in October of 2003, I turned away from denominationalism; I ended my affiliation with the Baptist and Methodist churches and wholeheartedly embraced the one and only old time religion: the religion of the New Testament.

[Click here to read the second article in this series.]

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Excessive Humility

I am a Christian. Am I perfect? By no means. Do I claim to have all the answers? Not at all. Is it possible that I am misguided or mistaken in my understanding of certain doctrines? I would say that it's not only possible, but probable that I'm off on something and will be compelled at some point in the future to change a position...or positions. Yes, I am absolutely, positively fallible and in constant need of God's grace, His patience, and His forgiveneness.
"Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead" (Philippians 3:12-13).
"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
"...and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation - as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:15-16).
"If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:10).
We all ought to have this same humility. None of us has all the answers. None of us are perfect. None of us are always right in every case. On a spiritual level, we are all growing, learning, changing and adjusting (as needed) constantly...and that will always be true so long as we live on the earth.

Having said that, it is possible to be crippled by an excess of humility.

One might object to the notion of being TOO humble, so perhaps a more proper designation is James' reference to the "double-minded man" who is "like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind...unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6, 9). It is true that arrogance is an ugly and ungodly trait that all Christians must avoid, but we can allow the pendulum to swing too far the other way, to become so humble that our confidence is cast away and our faith falters.
"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us...We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:13-14, 19).
 " which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ...Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 3:4; 5:17).
Jesus didn't die so that we could be filled with uncertainty and doubt. He didn't give us a Bible that is so confusing that a seminary degree is required to understand it. Jesus didn't pray for unity in John 17, knowing full well that it was an absurd, unreasonable and impossible notion. God's objective all along has not been to impede our progress, but to enable us to comprehend His will and draw closer to Him.

And yet there are many Christians who act as if they cannot possibly reach a point of spiritual maturity - we're all perpetual sinners stuck in the mire of sin and depravity. But aren't we encouraged to pursue a deeper knowledge of God's word (Heb. 5:12), to "be perfect," or complete in Christ (2 Cor. 13:11)?

The "double-minded" Christian says that we cannot possibly know that we're right and someone else is wrong, and yet isn't that an attack on the very essence of evangelism? We have the truth and we are going to those who don't have the teach it to them (Mt. 28:19-20)? Yes, we are to do so with the utmost humility and patience (2 Tim. 2:24-25; 1 Pet. 3:15), but still, we are instructed to "preach the word" and to take a firm stand upon the one faith (2 Tim. 4:2; Eph. 4:1-5; Jude 3).

No, we are not THE Judge, but hasn't God given us the standard of judgment: the word (John 12:48)? So while it will be Jesus Christ who will sentence sinners to Hell, and while He certainly reserves the right to pardon the guilty if He so chooses, is it not our job to help others prepare for judgment by guiding them to the truth? But the "double-minded" man who is crippled by excessive humility cannot approach some sinners with the confidence that is required to persuade them to repent and embrace the New Testament pattern.

Again, all Christians must be humble. But don't become let yourself become cripped by "excessive humility." Not only will you be holding yourself back, but your "double-mindedness" may very well impede others in their pursuit of truth.

Think about it.