Friday, April 27, 2012

Mature Persuasion

Some argue that individuals should never be motivated by fear to serve God, and yet Paul writes the following in 2 Corinthians 5:10-11...
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men..."
Which of God's characteristics is a valid motivator for obedience, according to the inspired apostle? It is the "terror of the Lord." We see this kind of persuasion throughout the scriptures. In other words, the prophets and apostles of old often cited the wrath of God and the horror of hell to convince sinners to obey the word of God. Even in the New Testament, where it is sometimes alleged that God is 100% love and 0% wrath (as opposed to the "cruel" God of the Old Testament), we see Jesus hammering home the reality of hell in places like Matthew 25, and the apostles warning people of God's impending wrath if they did not repent (Acts 2:36-38; 17:30-31).

And yes, even mature Christians are told in Philippians 2:12 to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," and even seasoned saints are reminded that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). Those who are faithful children of God should never lose sight of hell. We should never become complacent or apathetic.


It occurs to me that as Christians mature in the faith, we become less motivated by fear, and more motivated, or "persuaded" by the love of God.
"For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39).
"For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that day" (2 Tim. 1:12).
The impression I get is that as Paul drew closer to God, he became more and more convinced of the love of God. As he experienced God's care and intimacy in his own life, he developed a profound and deep-seeded AWE of God's "amazing grace." Did he know about God's love and grace from the beginning? I'm sure he least intellectually, but there can be no doubt that he went from knowing about God's love to feeling it. It became a source of confidence and faith.

Of course, anyone who has truly experienced spiritual maturity know that what I'm saying is true. If you have become that "living sacrifice" of Romans 12:1-2, if you have come to "deny yourself" (Mt. 16:24) and to be "crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20) you've grown and developed on a spiritual level, God's love has become such a precious reality in your heart, so much so that you often find yourself dwelling on the fact that God is amazing. He is perfect. He is incredible. You are so indebted to Him. This life is nothing - you are nothing - without Jesus Christ. Children often obey their parents from the standpoint of fear, but as they grow into adulthood, that fear melts into love and admiration (or at least should) - because now you want to please them.

This reinforces John's sweet words in 1 John 4:18. Writing, I believe, about mature Christians, the apostle comments that "there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear..."

As we've seen, fear is an appropriate motivator, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with appealing to God's wrath and to the fiery consequences of sin. Even as Christians, we need to be reminded of these things from time to time. No question. But again, the longer we serve Christ, the more we, too, like Paul, will be "persuaded" of God's unmatched love.

Finally, in closing, let me suggest to you that your attitude in this area serves as an indicator of your spiritual maturity, or lack thereof. If you have been a Christian for many, many years and yet you are, to this day, trembling in fear before God, constantly dwelling on hell, and perpetually worried that you may miss out on heaven, then you haven't yet been "persuaded" as Paul was persuaded. If this describes you, I urge you to examine yourself.

Meanwhile, if you're not yet a Christian, or if you are a babe in Christ, I say to you with a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye...

You have much to look forward to if you will simply yield to the Lordship of Jesus Christ!

What are you waiting for?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reacting to Suffering

We read the following account in Luke 13:1-5...
"There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.'"
We all endure periods of suffering and affliction in our lives, but there are some folks who suffer more than others. Sometimes, tragedy strikes unexpectedly and affects individuals, families, churches, even communities! Of course, we hear of earthquakes and tsunamis in other parts of the world, powerful hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts that destroy towns, and tornadoes that rip through cities, killing dozens. There are also tragedies that are not weather-related: the death of a child or spouse, the loss of a job, divorce, and I could list many other atrocities and hardships that cause tremendous anguish.

In Jesus' day, there were those who viewed such tragedies as a sign of God's wrath. If someone was suffering so intensely, they must have done something to anger God and now were feeling the force of His hot displeasure - divine chastening, or punishment, if you will. Jesus cited two such incidents - (1) the "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" and (2) "those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell." Did these things happen to these people because they had sinned?

Over in John 9:1-2, a similar situation plays out. There was a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind." In the book of Job, Job's three friends came to a similar conclusion, that Job was being punished for sin he had committed. Both the blind man in John 9 as well as Job were not suffering because of sin, so it was a false conclusion.

It is true that God chastens His children (Heb. 12), and it is true that God does punish people, families and nations because of rampant sin (we see examples of this throughout the scriptures). However, what we learn in Luke 13:1-5, and John 9:1-2, and the book of Job, is that when tragedy strikes, rather than asking "why?" it is vital to our spiritual well-being that we use the occasion to examine ourselves and draw closer to God.

It may be that God is punishing the recipients of the affliction. Or it may be a matter of "time and chance," which, according to Solomon, befalls all of us, good or bad (Eccl. 9:11; also Mt. 5:45). The point is: it is pointless to try to figure it out...a waste of time. In reality, no matter the cause, all suffering and affliction imparts the same spiritual lessons:
  1. We live in an imperfect world.
  2. All suffering and unhappiness are the result of the presence of sin going all the way back to Eden.
  3. Life is hard. Sometimes bitterly hard.
  4. We cannot escape all suffering and pain...
  5. ...but we can find peace and contentment in Christ (Phil. 4:6-11).
  6. A strenuous life in a sinful, imperfect world only makes the promise of heaven that much sweeter (Rev. 21:4). NO more pain. NO more tears. NO more sorrows. Wow!
Whether tragedy strikes you, someone close to you, a community, or a nation, and whether it's because of sin or not, Jesus teaches us in Luke 13:1-5 that we simply need to use these occasions to recognize the brevity and frailty of life, to examine our spiritual life, to repent, and to draw nearer to God.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Must a Church Be Perfect?

There are many religious people who are extremely lax in their view of God's commandments, taking the position that so long as a person has faith and "good intentions," they are heaven-bound. And then there are other religious people who are quite strict in their approach to the commandments of God, arguing that we must strive to obey God's will completely and totally. Of course, one's attitude towards personal faith and obedience usually impacts their attitude towards churches as well. In other words, those who have a lax view of what an individual must do to be pleasing to God usually have a lax view of what a church must do to be pleasing to God, and vise versa.

If you are acquainted with me at all, or if you have read my past blog posts, then you know that I tend to be more conservative in my approach to the scriptures. While some would accuse me of being overly demanding and overly stringent, I would contend that I am where I should be. After all, the epistle of James teaches us that faith in and of itself is insufficient; without obedience, our faith is "dead" (James 2:17, 26). Earlier in James 2, the inspired writer is clear that partial obedience is not good enough. "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). That sounds strict, doesn't it? Yes, we must have faith, but in order to be truly pleasing to God, we must have an obedient faith, and we must make it our aim to do just what the law authorizes us to do. Of course, the apostle John adds that when we act apart from the authority of God's word, we sin (1 John 3:4), and sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2) and results in spiritual death (Romans 6:23). In 2 John 9, these points are all summarized perfectly: "Whoever transgresses (sins) and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son."

So when it comes to an individual's salvation, the stricter, more conservative approach, is the right one. These and other scriptures make that abundantly clear.

Now, here's the question: does this strict approach apply ALSO to the local church? To put it another way, must the local church strive for complete and total obedience to ALL of God's word? What if a church is weak in one area, or lacking in an area? Must a church be perfect?

Two points...

The Corinthian church was rife with problems. There was a sectarian mindset among many of the members, culminating in division and strife (1:10-13; 3-4). They were beginning to embrace human wisdom over the wisdom of God (2:1-5). There were individuals in the church that were living double-lives, such as the Christian man who was committing fornication with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5), and the church was apparently doing nothing about the situation. In chapter six, we learn that some of the members were actually suing one another. There were misundertandings about marriage and sexual immorality (ch. 7). There was little compassion and patience for the weaker Christians (ch. 8). There were apparently some rebellious women in the church as well (11:1-16; 14:34). The Lord's supper was turned into a common meal...a selfish and disorganized meal at that (11:22-34). They were not acting like a "body" of Christ (12). They were not loving each other as they should (13). They were perverting spiritual gifts and turning the worship service into a talent show, rather than using their assemblies as an opportunity to praise God and edify one another (14). Finally, there were misunderstandings about the resurrection, a core doctrine of Christianity (15).

How would you view the Corinthian church? Faithful or unfaithful? Right or wrong? If you had lived during the first century, would you have felt comfortable assembling with the Corinthian church?

Interestingly enough, Paul called them the "church of God which is at Corinth" (1:2). He thanked God for the brethren in Corinth (1:4). And Paul actually planned on assembling with the church when he arrived there in Corinth (16:3). In fact, he planned to "stay a while" with them (16:7).

So it looks like we can have a more lax view of the local church, doesn't it? After all, the Corinthian church was far from perfect. Not only did the church have many, many problems, the problems they had were quite serious according to our standards. Sectarianism? Suing one another? Women speaking out in the church assembly? A total perversion of something as holy and special as the Lord's supper? And yet, despite all of these issues, Paul accepted the church and planned on assembling with them while he was in Corinth.

On the other hand...

Look at Revelation 2-3. Jesus addressed seven churches in Asia, and we learn that five of the seven churches, much like Corinth, were afflicted with problems and imperfections. Ephesus had left its first love (Rev. 2:4), just as Corinth had abandoned love (1 Cor. 13). Pergamos was tolerating false doctrines within the church (2:14-15), just as Corinth had (1 Cor. 15). Thyatira was tolerating a wicked woman who made many false claims, promoted sexual immorality, and misled other church members (2:20-21), just as Corinth tolerated the wicked man who was sleeping with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5). Sardis was a dead church (3:2). The Laodiceans were half-hearted in their devotion to God, instead placing more emphasis on material wealth (3:15-17). 

These five churches, much like Corinth, were FAR from perfect, but instead of finding Christ's acceptance and tolerance of these imperfect, struggling churches, we see REBUKE, ADMONITION, and WARNING. They were commanded to repent, to change, to get back on track, and if they didn't, these churces would be rejected by the Lord; their status as "churches OF (belonging to) Christ" would be removed (1:20 --> 2:5).

Now this is confusing. On one hand, Paul embraced the Corinthian church in spite of their imperfections, but on the other hand, Jesus told these five imperfect churches in Asia that if they didn't straighten up, they'd be rejected. A contradiction? Of course not. All we have to do is tell the other half of the story.

Did Paul truly embrace the Corinthian church? Sure, he referred to this struggling church as a "church of God." He called them brethren. He planned on assembling with them, in spite of their many, many VERY SERIOUS problems. And yet did he approve of the church and embrace them unconditionally? Not at all! Throughout the book, the apostle Paul, as he emphasized their problems, rebuked them, chastized them, warned them, and basically wrote over and over again, "CHANGE NOW!" just as Jesus did to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2-3.

Thankfully, as we learn in 2 Corinthians, not long after receiving the first epistle, the church was already doing much better. But what if they had refused to change? Would they too have lost their status as a "church OF Christ?" I think so. I think that we MUST answer with a "yes."

Conversely, in spite of the many charges leveled against the five churches in Asia, they were, at that time, "churches OF Christ." There were many positive attributes that were praised, and faithful members that were doing God's word in spite of the controversy surrounding them. Again, these churches weren't told, "You have been rejected," but, "You will be rejected...if you don't straighten up."

So actually, in the end, we see that the Corinthian church was given the same basic warnings that were given to the five imperiled churches in Asia. Likewise, the five churches in Asia were just as accepted by Jesus as the Corinthian church was by the apostle Paul. These were all imperfect churches, and while they were accepted by God, they were not approved, and soon, if they didn't change, they would be both unapproved and unaccepted. Today, if a faithful church begins to have problems and struggles - even if we deem the problems to be quite serious - we don't immediately reject that church. Instead, we should exhibit patience and extend fellowship while working to correct the problems that are there, just as Paul worked with Corinth and just as Jesus worked with the five churches in Asia.

Must a church be perfect? Well, I'll say this: a church must strive to be perfect. If there are imperfections (whether they be unfortunate situations or false doctrines), we need to make it a priority to address those imperfections ASAP. I think that there is a sense in which conservative brethren need to exhibit more patience (and acceptance) towards weak and struggling churches - but patience doesn't mean "approval." May I assemble with a church and support a church that has some serious issues? long as I recognize those issues and am making serious efforts to help correct (not ignore) the problems.

In closing, let me offer two clarifications:
  1. This doesn't apply to churches that have never been faithful, or to churches that consist of folks that have not obeyed the gospel plan of salvation. As stated in the article above, this applies to churches that have been faithful, but are facing problems now.
  2. I also want to clarify that, just as those churches of the first century were warned that their "church-hood" would be removed, the same can occur today. Therefore, while we ought to exhibit patience and acceptance towards struggling churches, if a church rejects all admonitions and warnings and continues down the path of apostasy, there comes a point where we must leave. The exact point at which we leave and sever ties is, I suppose, left up to personal judgment, but that doesn't change the fact that the decision may very well need to be made at some point.
I take the more conservative approach to the work of individual Christians as well as local churches, and I believe that this "strict" approach is the right approach. However, as I deal with weak and struggling Christians, so I also deal with weak and struggling churches - accept, but not approve; admonish and encourage rather than ignore and tolerate.

Do you agree or disagree? Feel free to comment below...

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Growing Distaste for Facebook Debates

I am a Christian. I am a gospel preacher. I work at home, on my computer, and spend most days writing lessons, class material, articles, and studying my Bible. I love to study the Bible. I love to discuss the Bible even more - to help others in their pursuit of truth, to be challenged myself, to have those back-and-forth discussions with brethren that deepen my knowledge of the scriptures (and theirs as well, hopefully). Of course, there are opportunities to have Bible discussions at church. Also, my wife and I often discuss the scriptures, and as my children grow older, I'm sure there will be many profitable discussions with them as well. When I have Bible studies with others in the community, it is common for a "presentation" to turn into a discussion, which is wonderful. But then, the internet also has opened up many, many opportunities for Bible discussions with other people - people I know, people I kind of know, and people I've never met.

Years ago, it was "Pleonast," a site like Facebook that was mainly used by Christians. There were "groups" on Pleonast that I joined where the purpose was to discuss and debate spiritual matters. I remember spending many hours arguing with other preachers and Christians about every issue imaginable. I myself started a LOT of threads, asking questions about different issues (many of which were controversial).

Then, along came Myspace. I was on there for a while and oddly enough, I remember very little about my experiences on Myspace. The site still exists...I think, but obviously, internet junkies are, for the most part, directing their energy and efforts towards the infamous "Facebook."

I'm on Facebook. In fact, if you're reading this article, it's probably because I linked to it from my Facebook page. I like Facebook. It's a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends, family, and other Christians. And yes, it's yet another place where spiritually-minded people can discuss and debate the scriptures. Over the years, since joining Facebook, I have participated in many of these discussions. Where I spend many hours on the computer each and every day, I do log into Facebook and because so many of my friends are Christians (and many of them, preachers), it's not uncommon to see various Bible discussions taking place. I've started more than a few myself.

Sometimes, a simple, innocent question can turn into a very drawn-out discussion. There might be dozens, or even hundreds of comments. Other times, a point is made or a question is posed for the purpose of instigating such a lively debate...

...and for me, it is really hard to resist a good Bible discussion.

Facebook's format makes it even harder. It's like a Lay's potato chip. "I betcha can't eat just one." You make ONE comment, and then, all of a sudden, there's that bright red number at the top of the page...a notification. Yes, once you make a comment on a thread, from that point forward, you will be notified EVERY TIME someone else comments on that same thread.

And you just have to return to that conversation to see what was said. After all, maybe they're responding to YOUR comment. What did they say? Did they agree with you, or disagree? If they disagreed, how are you going to respond? What next?

Then you start "liking" people's comments. And others like your comments. And you're always looking to see who liked who's comment. That only makes it more intriguing.

And you get sucked into it.

Now imagine that you've made several comments on different threads. Suddenly, that little red "notification" box at the top of the page lights up constantly. The numbers get higher and higher. Two notifications. Now FIVE notifications. Whoa! By the time you respond to this comment, that little red number is calling you somewhere else, so you rush over and comment there, but now you're being called BACK by the notification fairy to the other conversation...

...and very soon, you realize that you've been at it for an hour...or two hours...


I love Bible discussions, but I am really, really developing a distaste for Facebook debates. It's taken a long time - many years, in fact - but I'm there. I'm at the point where enough is enough. Let me explain why...
  1. Online debates are dangerous because there is very little accountability. You're not looking at the other person. You don't even have to hear their voice (see point #2 below). So all of a sudden, you are bolder than you've ever been. You say things that you wouldn't say if you were standing in front of them, and that's not a good thing. I am reminded of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16. They were oh so bold in their accusations against Moses and Aaron...until Moses basically told them, "Come and say it to my face." They wouldn't. This revealed their true cowardice and dishonesty. Now, I'm not saying that everyone who participates in a debate on Facebook is cowardly and dishonest, but I am saying that Facebook (or any online medium) offers very little accountability. As a result, we become mean, harsh, critical; we resort to name-calling and mud-slinging...none of which reflects the spirit of Christ!
  2. This brings me to another problem. In an online conversation, you obviously are reading someone else's comments without the benefit of hearing their voice. Consequently, you might read a comment and draw incorrect conclusions about what tone, or attitude, is behind that comment. You might assume, for example, that a person was angry when they typed a particular comment. It may be something as simple as an exclamation point, or a word in ALL CAPS. They may have merely been emphasizing something, but you assume that it denotes anger. I wonder...I wonder how many words, sentences, comments, etc. are written for the sole purpose of clarifying tone or intent (because you've offended someone, or been offended by someone). Man, I've been there more times than I can count. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love "thinks no evil." In other words, I shouldn't assume the worst of a brother or sister in Christ. Facebook, and all online chat rooms, sure make that commandment really, really difficult.
  3. Naturally, in such a volatile environement, there is the temption to be impulsive. Read the following verses and apply them to Facebook: "In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise" (Prov. 10:19). "A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays contentions" (Prov. 15:18). "The beginning of strife is like releasing water; therefore stop contention before a quarrel starts" (Prov 17:14). "He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him" (Prov. 18:13). "The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression" (Prov 19:11). And then finally, " swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19). Am I saying that it's wrong to discuss the scriptures? No. Am I saying that it's wrong to debate the scriptures? No. Am I saying that all Bible discussions on Facebook are wrong? No. I'm just saying that where there is (1) very little accountability, and (2) such strong temptations to misinterpret the tone of comments, that there is (3) the temptation to be impulsive, to say something without giving thought to tone, prudence, tactfulness, etc. How many times have you typed something on impulse only to "remove" the comment after the fact.
  4. Sadly, religious debates/conversations on Facebook do more harm that good. Maybe this is just MY observation. Maybe YOU have observed something different. However, it appears to me that more often than not, rather than a fruitful discussion where both sides walk away further enlightened and edified, people walk away (1) more entrentched in their belief, (2) bitter/angry towards brethren that they used to respect, (3) self-satisifed that they "won" the debate or at least got their point across (as if it's a competition), and (4) prone now to go and complain about and/or gossip about the others who participated in that thread. I'm not saying that all Facebook debates are handled in such a shameful manner. MANY of them, in fact, may bear NONE of these characteristics. Again, maybe it's just my observation and maybe I'm wrong...but...I doubt it.
  5. Simply put: religious conversations and debates on Facebook often devolve into pure pettiness and immaturity. We start picking each other's comments apart. I've done it. Maybe you have, too. Doesn't Paul say something about this in 1 Timothy 6? "Arguments over words" (vs. 3) are to be avoided by those Christians desiring unity.
  6. One thing that drives me absolutely bonkers is a disorganized debate, and I find that it's nearly impossible to have a truly organized discussion on Facebook. A point is made or a question is posed. People begin to respond. Comments pour in all at once. Different objections are raised at the same time. Suddenly, there are a dozen people commenting, chasing down every rabbit trail, pursuing every question...and so often, the debate ends in a totally different place and I'm wondering, "How in the world did we get here?" Am I the only one?
  7. Finally, in light of objections 1-6 (see above), it is so easy to waste precious time on Facebook. I'm all for good, profitable Bible discussions, even if they're on Facebook. I'm sure I'll participate in a few in the future. But friend, many hours do we waste having fruitless, contentious, unprofitable discussions on the internet? I am guilty, and I repent. "[Redeem] the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:16). Instead of getting sucked into quarrel after quarrel after quarrel in such a cold, detached, impersonal environment, why not spend that time actually reading and studying the Bible (you'll learn more anyways), concentrating on your own work and efforts in your own area (and church), helping people, visiting people, SPENDING TIME WITH YOUR SPOUSE AND CHILDREN, etc, etc, etc.
I digress.

Again, please don't think that I'm condemning ALL Bible conversations/debates that occur online. I'm just making a personal decision that from now on, I'm going to make it a point to avoid getting involved in Facebook debates. It's going to be hard. It's like eating a Lay's potato chip and not reaching your hand back into the bag. I'm going to see questions and comments posed by friends and I'm going to want to make just ONE wee little comment. And there'll be all kinds of ways to justify it in my own mind...

But then I'll tempting as it is now, I'll regret it in the end.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Attitudes of False Teachers

In Matthew 7:15, Jesus tells us to, "Beware of false prophets, who comes to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly, they are ravenous wolves." In other words, false teachers may seem good, but inwardly, they are evil. As Jesus goes on to say in verses 16-19, a false prophet will eventually do things that will reveal their true character - they will "bear bad fruit" and thus prove that they are truly evil. The lesson for us? Don't be deceived! If someone claims to be a prophet (or a gospel preacher), pay close attention to the things they say and do! If their works are evil, their heart is evil!

I am reminded first of all of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were highly respected for their alleged holiness and devotion. Outwardly, they appeared righteous to men (Matthew 23:28), but in reality, they were hypocrites! Jesus had many encounters with the Pharisees and He never ceased to point out their hypocrisy and wickedness. He even told His disciples to "beware" of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:12). These men were FALSE TEACHERS. They were false because of what they taught (they emphasized human traditions over God's commandments), and their works proved their wickedness.

Then there were those even in the church who were LIKE the Pharisees in that they advocated error while also having an attitude or lifestyle that wasn't reflective of Christ. Notice these two passages:
"Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple" (Romans 16:17-18).
 "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of God" (1 Timothy 6:3-5).
"Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort" (1 Timothy 6:17). They were spreading error on the resurrection and causing quite a bit of controversy. There were also the Judaizing teachers in Galatia who were pushing circumcision for selfish reasons (Galatians 6:12-13). Finally, I am reminded of "Jezebel," a wicked woman who led many Christians away from God in Thyatira (Revelation 2:20-23).

Even today, there are men and women who call themselves Christians and who advocate error for similar reasons or in similar fashion. Maybe they are pushing a doctrine for carnal purposes (to justify immoral behavior). Maybe they are advancing error and splitting up faithful congregations of the Lord's people. There are some who know very little about God's word, and whose lives are filled with sin (or unwise behavior), and their teachings reflect it. As the scriptures teach, we ought to "withdraw" ourselves from such false teachers!


That's not to say that all "false teachers" are insincere, carnal and wicked. In other words, it is possible to be sincerely wrong. Apollos is the first example that comes to mind. In Acts 18:24, we are told that Apollos was "an eloquent man and mighty in the scriptures" and that he "spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord" (vs. 25). Yet he was unfamiliar with the truth on baptism (vs. 25) and had baptized many people in Ephesus the wrong way (according to the baptism of John).

Obviously, Apollos was not like the Pharisees, or Hymenaeus and Philetus, or Jezebel. He was a God-fearing man who just so happened to misunderstand a particular spiritual topic. But despite his "good intentions," he was still wrong, and something needed to be done! As we read in Acts 18:26, "Aquila and Priscilla heard him" and "took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately."

Some might argue that Apollos wasn't a true "FALSE teacher" because, after all, he was well-intentioned and sincere - a good man, if you all. Fine. Then call him a "proponent of error," or "mistaken." Either way, the man was still in need of correction, and his error still needed to be remedied (which Paul did in Acts 19).

We may handle different "false teachers" differently. There are some, like the Pharisees or Jezebel, that might warrant a more direct, "harsher" approach. And then there are others, like Apollos, that simply need to be taken aside and straightened out.

As Christians, we need to do the best we can to make the proper distinctions. But we also must address error whenever and however it rears its ugly head.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Highs and Lows (No. 1)

An issue that I am passionate about is church unity, and no, I'm not necessarily talking about denominationalism or the manner in which different churches treat one another - I'm talking about the unity that ought to exist between the members of a local church. Paul urged the brethren in Corinth to "speak the same thing" and to be "perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). Likewise, the Christians who comprised the church in Ephesus were commanded to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3), and the Philippian saints were encouraged to be "like-minded" (Phil. 2:2).

So, yes, denomationalism is wrong, but division within the local church is also wrong. And in light of the fact that churches are autonomous, it is regrettable that some Christians are adamant in their opposition to denominationalism and yet completely apathetic when it comes to promoting unity within the local church of which they are a member. We must make it a point to deepen the bonds of fellowship and unity within our own church.

There are many hindrances to unity that should be addressed, and conversely, there are many things that we can do to foster a greater sense of unity. For example, it is vital that we have appropriate expectations of our brethren. What I mean is that we shouldn't think too highly of our brethren, nor should we think too little of them. Dangerous side-effects are associated with either extreme.

We should all think highly of our brethren by looking upon them with fondness and affection. We ought to love fellow saints to such a degree that we're willing to die for one another (1 John 4:14-16). Paul tells us to honor our brethren (Rom. 12:10) and to hold their needs in high esteem (Phil. 2:3). However, it is possible to think TOO highly of our brethren, and the consequences of such "undue exaltation" are dire:
  • All of us have sinned (1 John 1:10) and none of us are without faults and imperfections. Yet when we esteem a fellow Christian too highly, we tend to overlook or minimize their weaknesses. I'm not saying that we should be hasty to criticize others - certainly, patience and compassion should be employed as we deal with one another - but if someone is doing something that is wrong, we must be (1) willing to recognize it as wrong, and (2) willing to tell that Christian that they are wrong. I am reminded of the parent who is never willing to admit that their child has made a mistake; blinded by an obvious parental bias, they always rush to their child's defense. As Christians, we cannot think SO highly of another Christian that we are blind to their shortcomings and sins.
  • There are some Christians who think so highly of a preacher that they embrace everything the preacher says as "the gospel truth." Hopefully, the preacher is preaching the gospel (2 Timothy 4:2). As a preacher myself, I can tell you that my aim is to preach just what the Bible teaches - nothing more and nothing less! At the same time, preachers are fallible, and even the best and most experienced preachers in the land occasionally say something that they shouldn't. Whether it's a "slip of the tongue" or actual error, every preacher has had at least one moment where someone has had to take him aside after services and inform him of his error. And yet some Christians view their preacher so highly that they accept everything he says no matter what, whether it's biblical or not.
  • Finally, there is the problem of sectarianism. We see an example of this in 1 Corinthians 1:12: "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." The members of the church of Christ in Corinth were thinking too highly of different preachers. Some sided with Paul, while others sided with Peter or Apollos. As the context indicates, these allegiances led to strife and competition. There are churches even today who are dealing with this very problem - the members of a church might be divided based upon who they like best. The preacher? One of the elders? Maybe it's a Bible class teacher? Either way, instead of an environment of peace and unity, there is an environment of competition, bitterness and gossip. Often, churches split when such a mindset prevails.
Again, we must think highly of our brethren, but not too highly.

Likewise, we can think too little of our brethren. It's true that none of us are sinless, and yes, we all have our faults and shortcomes...and yes, we live in a world of sin and there are so many things trying to pull us away from God (Galatians 5:17), but it is important that we don't sell one another short. The consequences of thinking too little of our brethren are also dire:
  • We tend to lessen the seriousness of sin. We all do it, right? What's the big deal when a fellow Christian acts in a sinful manner? We're fallible. We're human. Right? Paul responds, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).
  • We believe that certain brethren are unable to handle certain temptations, or that they will be unable to handle our rebuke. Instead of gently pointing out one's sin (so that they might do better in the future and thus draw closer to God), we feel the need to pamper and pet them. I am reminded of the situation in Corinth where they tolerated the wayward brother who was committing fornication with his father's wife (1 Corinthians 5). For whatever reason, they chose not to confront that brother, and Paul rebuked them for it.
  • There are no expectations of GROWTH and spiritual maturity. Notice the following statement in Hebrews 5:12: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God: and you have come to need milk and not solid food..." Each of us ought to be growing. As the years go by, we should know more and more about God's word. Our ability to overcome certain temptations should be greater. The weaknesses and shortcomes we once had should not afflict us as severely (although new challenges will arise). And yet there are churches where the members do not have these expectations of one another. As a result, there are churches full of weak Christians - which will lead to other problems in the future.
If we can have a balanced view of our brethren - not to think too highly or too little of one another - it will be so much easier to maintain unity and peace in the local church. In my next article, I'd like to address the problem of having unreasonably high expectations of our brethren...

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Two Views of "My" Righteousness

We all understand that Christians are to pursue righteousness, just as we are to pursue salvation, sanctification, redemption, justification and holiness. All of these terms mean different things, obviously, and yet at the same time, we understand that we cannot separate one from the other. One cannot settle for "salvation" without also being justified. Sanctification (being set apart) cannot occur without redemption. And a Christian cannot be holy without also being righteous.

Righteousness is defined as "equity...justification" by Strong's. To put it simply, to be righteous is to be "made right" before God, and all of us, as we pursue salvation and fellowship with God, must simultaneously pursue righteousness.
"In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34-35).
"Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness" (Rom. 6:13).
"...and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24).
"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 Tim. 3:16-17).
In these four verses, the point is made that we MUST become righteous. We must take the initiative and act in such a way that we go from being unrighteous to righteous. We "work" righteousness. Righteousness results from our "obedience." The Bible provides instruction on how to become righteous. In other words, righteousness is not something that is automatic, nor is it applied to you unconditionally by God.

And yet...

We do find other verses that seem to indicate that righteousness doesn't save and that we cannot "work righteousness" and expect a reward from God.
"...just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works..." (Romans 4:6).
"For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life" (Romans 5:17-18).
"...not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).
These three verses seem to contradict the first four we read before, don't they? According to the verses cited earlier, righteousness is the result of obedience and works and human effort. These three verses, however, say that righteousness is a gift imparted by God, and that we are not righteous based upon our works. this a contradiction? It appears to be at first glance, but for those of us who view the Bible as the infallible word of God, we understand that in the end, both points can be harmonized. But how?

There might be many ways to address this issue, ranging from complex word studies, to in-depth studies of the whole scope of the New Testament scriptures. But I'd like to address this apparent problem by considering TWO examples from the Old Testament.

On one hand, we find the example of Job. Job was a righteous man, and God was extremely impressed with Job's faith. As I'm sure you know, Satan told God that Job was so righteous ONLY because his faith had never been challenged. God agreed that Satan could afflict Job and while Job remained faithful to God, His faith was certainly challenged. We learn that Job developed some attitudes that weren't exactly right.

Job knew that he had faithfully served God. He knew that He had done nothing to warrant this affliction. But rather than humbly trusting God, He became prideful...
"Far be it from me that I should say you are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live" (Job 27:5-6).
Job didn't always have this attitude. Throughout his life, his righteousness and holiness had impressed God because the implication is that he wasn't pridefully righteous, but humbly righteous. However, when the affliction came and the pain of the boils set in, his faith was clearly challenged. He wondered why God would do this to him. In this state of confusion and frustration, we learn that he began to use his righteousness almost as a "bargaining chip." His mindset went from, "I don't deserve this," to, "I deserve God's favor, because I'm so righteous."

Again, let me be clear: I don't think that this had always been Job's attitude. He had always been humble. Even here in Job 27, he acknowledged God's existence and might - He was still a man of faith - but his attitude toward God did change.

On the other hand, we find the following statement in Isaiah 64:6...
"But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags."
In the context, Isaiah emphasizes our sins and shortcomings. Even though we might be obedient, and even though we have "worked righteousness," we understand that, in the end, we are still undeserving of God's grace and salvation. Rather than using our righteousness as a "bargaining chip" and acting as if God owes us because of all we've "done for Him," we humbly serve and obey God simply because...He is God and it's the least we can do.

I am reminded of the following statement in Luke 17:10...
"So likewise you, when you have done all those things which are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'"
You see, it's about ATTITUDE.

If you think that you can just engage in so many "works of righteousness" (Titus 3:5) that God will OWE you salvation, then you are sorely mistaken. God doesn't owe you anything, and there's nothing that you can do that will change that. In reality, our works don't earn us righteousness. God is the one who imparts righteousness, just as He imparts salvation and redemption and holiness.

Having said that, righteousness is conditional. Yes, God is the one who imparts righteousness, but He only imparts it to those who are humbly and sincerely obedient to His will.

It's a difficult balance to maintain.

We can become so heavily focused on how righteousness is a gift imparted by God that we lose sight of the necessity of obedience, but we can also become prideful in our obedience and think that because we have "made ourselves righteous" that God owes me a spot in heaven.

Obey God and you will be righteous in His sight, not because you have made yourself righteous, but because He has made you righteous. Make sense?