Friday, September 21, 2012

Dealing w/ Disagreements #5: Personal Disputes

First of all, I apologize for the ridiculously long title. I couldn't find a way to shorten it. 

Second, this is the fourth article in a series of articles on the different kinds of disagreements and divisions that might occur in the local church and how a different response ought to be implemented depending on the nature of the disagreement. In the first article, we studied how we ought to respond to those who advocate error in a divisive manner. In the second article, we studied how we ought to take a softer and more gentle approach towards those who are wrong, but innocent. In the third article, we studied how we ought to wisely discern between what is worth arguing about and what isn't worth arguing about. And in the fourth article, we discussed the importance of (1) recognizing issues of liberty and (2) having forbearance regarding differences in areas of liberty.

This article will be the fifth and final article in this series. In short, what should brethren do when they have disagreements that have NOTHING to do with the Bible (i.e. personal disputes)? It happens, you know. In fact, there are churches that have split simply because a handful of brethren won't get along. I have even heard of an extreme case where a church split wide-open because they couldn't agree on which color of carpet to install in the church building. No scriptures are cited. No biblical truths are at stake. No one is teaching error publically or privately...

Just pigheaded brethren huffin' and puffin' and blowing God's house down.

So how should we handle personal disputes? And yes, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here is a list of recommendations from God's word. We'll start in Proverbs and end by citing a few New Testament principles.
  1.  "In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise" (Prov. 10:19). Don't react hastily to the comments and actions of others. As the old saying goes, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Amen. How many ridiculous quarrels would be avoided if we'd just keep our mouths shut?
  2. On a similar note, "There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health" (Prov. 12:18). This message is echoed in James 3. Paul, in Ephesians 4:29, put it this way: "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers." Watch what you say. Think of how your words will be heard and interpreted.
  3. "By pride comes nothing but strife, but with the well-advised is wisdom" (Prov. 13:10). The proud person reacts rashly to defend his "honor," but the wise person instead deliberates and seeks counsel. Instead of taking things personally and rushing to defend yourself, walk away and pray. 
  4. "He who is slow to wrath has great understanding..." (Prov. 14:29). Also, "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (16:32). If you have a temper, conquer it, because temper-tantrums in the Lord's church are shameful and divisive.
  5. "He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds rebuke gets understanding" (Prov. 15:32). Sometimes, brethren rebuke brethren, and it's not always a matter of spiritual error. It may be a suggestion or an offering of advice regarding a parent's care of their unruly child. It may be a subtle rebuke in the form of a request, as in, "Could you modify your tone when you ask questions in Bible class so that you don't come across as angry or abrasive?" As a preacher, I have been asked at times to speak more slowly, or to speak more loudly so that my lessons could be more easily heard. I could have taken those comments personally, but knew that the suggestions were made in love. In other words, respond well to constructive criticism. 
  6. "A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates the best of friends" (Prov. 16:28). Gossip is incredibly destructive to the Lord's church. As Solomon here indicates, gossip only stirs up trouble and creates unnecessary division. This leads us into the New Testament...
  7. Follow the process of Matthew 18:15-17 if someone has wronged you. If you have a problem with someone - a serious problem - don't gossip about them...go to them. But should you confront people each and every time you are wronged? No...
  8. "Love suffers long" (1 Cor. 13:4). In other words, relationships are never easy. When you are mistreated, overlooked, neglected or shafted - be willing to suffer and endure the abuse. Earlier, Paul put it this way: "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" (1 Cor. 6:7b). So if someone seriously wrongs you to the point that your relationship has been violated and/or severed, then go to them privately. At the same time, not every offense warrants a confrontation. In fact, the majority of offenses should probably be overlooked. We're all going to have bad days. We're all going to misspeak. We're all going to be jerks sometimes. If you suffer long with me and I suffer long with you, our relationship will not be so volatile.
I know that there are countless other principles that we could consider, but these eight principles, when applied, will go a long way in resolving so many of the personal disputes we have as brethren.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dealing w/ Disagreements #4: Matters of Judgment

First of all, I apologize for the ridiculously long title. I couldn't find a way to shorten it. 

Second, this is the fourth article in a series of articles on the different kinds of disagreements and divisions that might occur in the local church and how a different response ought to be implemented depending on the nature of the disagreement. In the first article, we studied how we ought to respond to those who advocate error in a divisive manner. In the second article, we studied how we ought to take a softer and more gentle approach towards those who are wrong, but innocent. In the third article, we studied how we ought to wisely discern between what is worth arguing about and what isn't worth arguing about.

In this fourth article, I'd like to address a fourth kind of disagreement. How should we react when we disagree on matters of personal judgment or opinion? This is a difficult question to answer for a number of reasons, and I must admit as I begin that I am ever growing in this area of my faith. In writing this article, I may be stepping on your toes, but believe me when I say that I am first and foremost stepping on my own toes.

First of all, what do I mean when I refer to "matters of personal judgment or opinion?"

There are, to be sure, rules and commandments in the New Testament that ought to be advocated, obeyed, and bound upon all. Just as Paul commanded Timothy to charge some that they teach no other doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3), so must we take a stand against false doctrine (Rom. 16:16-17; Gal. 1:6-10). We cannot accept any teachings and/or practices that contradict God's word (Ac. 17:11; 1 Cor. 5), whether it's an addition to God's word or a subtraction from God's word.

But at the same time, it is abundantly clear that there are choices that we must make, and things that we may do, that fall into the realm of personal judgment. These are areas where God's word is completely silent either way. In these areas, we are commanded to be tolerant.
"Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him" (Rom. 14:1-3).
What kind of issues are under consideration in this controversial chapter? We are first told that these are "doubtful things" (vs. 1), as opposed to things that God has clearly addressed. Second, we learn that these disagreements were between strong and weak brethren (vs. 1, 3; 15:1), not between faithful brethren and unfaithful brethren. So these were choices where sin wasn't committed either way. Third, these were matters of personal judgment (vs. 22-23) - choices that primarily impacted the one making the choice.

Paul's admonition in Romans 14 is that brethren be tolerant and patient in these areas. 

For example, it may be that a Catholic is converted to Christ, and yet they are not comfortable eating meat on Fridays (because it violates their conscience, vs. 23). There is nothing wrong with eating meat on Fridays, but neither is it wrong to NOT eat meat on be patient with them as they grow. Don't demand that they change, don't be harsh with them, and certainly don't invite them over for potroast on Friday.

And there are countless issues like this (that we take for granted) where tolerance must be shown.

The same basic message is taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, where he deals with another sensitive issue: the eating of meat that had been offered to idols (vs. 4) and the eating of meat in the idol's temples (vs. 10). Neither action was inherently sinful, and yet Paul specifically addresses the mature Christians, admonishing them to give up their liberty in these areas if it was an issue (i.e. a stumblingblock) for other, weaker Christians. What I glean most from this passage is that I must not be quick to label something as sinful (and thus make it a point of contention) when it is merely unwise. It wasn't sinful to eat in the idol's temple, but as Paul says, it may not have been the wisest choice because of the impact it would have had on the weaker Christians. NOTE: I wonder what kind of sermon I would have preached on the topic of eating in the idol's temple had I lived and preached in the first century??? Would I have condemned it?

Connecting this to Romans 14, we must be tolerant of beliefs and actions that aren't sinful. Someone's position may be wrong. Their actions may be unwise and/or shortsighted. A brother may live more strictly or more loosely than do we. But it is vital that we display tolerance and forbearance in all matters of personal judgment.  

We tend to want to make everything "black and white." We want everything to be clear-cut, to be right or wrong...and such is convenient (for us), but that doesn't make it the right approach. Unity comes not when everyone else conforms to our ideas and opinions, but when we all conform to God's word, which requires a firm stand in some areas, and tolerance in others.

Click here to access the fifth and final article in this series.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dealing w/ Disagreements #3: Nitpicking

First of all, I apologize for the ridiculously long title. I couldn't find a way to shorten it. 

Second, this is the third article in a series of articles on the different kinds of disagreements and divisions that might occur in the local church and how a different response ought to be implemented depending on the nature of the disagreement. Click here to access the first article, at the end of which is a link to the second article, and so forth.

Nitpicking is defined by the Encarta dictionary as "trivial, detailed, and often unjustified fault-finding," or more accurately (for our purposes in this article), "annoying criticisms about small unimportant details." The Bible portrays nitpicking (and it's effects) this way:
"As I urged you when I went into Macedonia - remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith" (1 Tim. 1:3-4).
"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..." (1 Tim. 6:3-4).
"Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers" (2 Tim. 2:14).
"But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless..." (Titus 3:9).
While we ought to always take a stand for the truth (Jude 3), the Scriptures consistently teach us that there are many things not worth arguing about. In the passages listed above, Paul says that we ought not argue about fables, endless genealogies, and strivings about the law. He also tells us not to engage in "arguments over words." Why? Because these types of debates have no spiritual benefit, are a waste of time, and do nothing but erect unnecessary barriers between otherwise like-minded brethren.

Have you ever experienced a Bible class where brethren argued to the point of contention about purely academic details? Have you ever seen two Christians clash over the intepretation of a word, or even a verse, all the while wondering why or how such a point is relevent? Have you ever heard someone object to a sermon, an invitation, or a prayer over some insignificant detail, or the phrasing of a point? Have you ever looked in hindsight at an argument and then thought, "Boy, was that silly"?

In other words, have you ever seen brethren "nitpick" at each other and at the Scriptures? If so (and I'm sure you have), then you've also probably seen the effects of such nitpicking; you've seen brethren get red in the face, raise their voices, rush to judgment, level accusations hastily, and divide...all over some small point that has little if any practical relevence. And you've probably also seen the new Christians, the young Christians, and even the mature, peace-loving Christians all discouraged by the ungodly quarreling between brethren who ought to know better.

Listen, the Bible is full of relevent information. Each page contains lessons for us. And yes, each verse is there for a reason. So I'm not suggesting that we sit by idly while brethren misinterpret parts of God's word. All I'm saying - all that Paul is saying - is that while some things are worth pursuing, other things are not worth pursuing; while some things are worth arguing about, other things are not worth arguing about.

And yes, to some extent, we have to use our judgment here (which requires wisdom).

And yes, we will sometimes disagree on what is and what isn't worth arguing about.

But let's have patience with one another. And when we disagree - if we disagree - let's do so with the right attitude. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:24...
"And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient."
Don't nitpick. Don't be argumentative. Don't raise trivial questions and pursue academic debates just for the thrill of it. Instead, have the wisdom to take a stand where you must, and to compromise and/or exhibit forbearance where you can.

Click here to access the fourth article in this series...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dealing w/ Disagreements #2: Wrong But Innocent

First of all, I apologize for the ridiculously long title. I couldn't find a way to shorten it. 

Second, this is the second article in a series of articles on the different kinds of disagreements and divisions that might occur in the local church and how a different response ought to be implemented depending on the nature of the disagreement. Click here to access the first article which details our approach to those who spread error in a way that is divisive.

As we're going to see in this second article, while all unbiblical teachings (what I call "error") ought to be addressed, the manner in which we address the proponent of error depends on their character and attitude. When someone knowingly stirs up controversy by teaching a doctrine privately or publically, the Scriptures call them "divisive." Divisive men, like the Judaizing teachers in Acts 15, ought to be openly rebuked and, if need be, rejected (as we learned in our first article).

However, not everyone who incorrectly interprets a verse or misrepresents a Bible doctrine is divisive. Not everyone who utters a biblical inaccuracy deserves a harsh response from their brethren. Not everyone who expresses a non-traditional viewpoint should be publically addressed, marked and rejected.

The best example of this, of course, is that of Apollos in Acts 18:24-26...
"Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately."
One thing that is clear in this text is that although Apollos was wrong, he was sincere, and he was doing the best he could do with the information he had at the time. It's not that he knew the truth about baptism but was intentionally teaching the baptism of John. It's not that he had been confronted about this before, and yet had stubbornly persisted in his error. So not only was he not intentionally teaching error, he wasn't intentionally misleading people or dividing brethren. He was wrong, but he was innocent.

Aquila and Priscilla were two faithful Christians who knew that they had to confront Apollos about his error, but how did they do it? Did they call him out in the synagogue? No. Did they speak negatively of Apollos in private correspondence to churches, or to Paul? No. Did they label him a false teacher or a heretic? No. Instead, they took him aside and corrected his misunderstanding of baptism. And Apollos, being the sincere, honest man that he was responded with a good attitude, accepted the truth, and moved forward with the same zeal and passion that he had exhibited before.

How can we apply this lesson to situations that might arise in churches today?

We need to distinguish between those false teachers who are divisive and those who, like Apollos, are innocent and/or ignorant. Those who boldly proclaim error knowing the trouble it will cause in the church ought to be handled openly, roughly, and swiftly. However, those who are innocent and/or ignorant need to be handled with more care and consideration.

Think of the man who was recently converted and is giving his first invitation talk or leading his first prayer. He does not have the knowledge and experience that you might have, and as a result, he may misquote a verse, or misrepresent a whole passage or doctrine. Maybe he's simply taking a verse out of context, or maybe he's repeating something that he heard years ago in the denominational world that hasn't yet been corrected since his conversion. Certainly, we ought to bear with the weak (Rom. 15:1) and recognize that it's going to take time for new Christians to grow (Heb. 5:12-14).

It could be something as small as calling the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden an "apple," or the great fish of Jonah's story a "whale." Maybe he uses the term "miracle" too loosely. Perhaps he makes the point that there were three wise men who visited Jesus, even though the Bible doesn't specify a number. I remember grimacing when one gentleman, a former Episcopal, placed special emphasis on the Lord's Supper on "Easter Sunday," as if we were celebrating Easter.

But one thing I know, based on the story of Apollos in Acts 18, is that this softer approach is not limited to babes in Christ or to minor details of the Bible. Apollos was a very knowledgeable man, and the position he was misrepresenting was/is one of the biggest issues in the Bible - it had to do with salvation. So maybe it isn't a new Christian who says the wrong thing; maybe it's your full-time evangelist who misinterprets a Bible verse. And maybe it's an issue that is much more serious. 

The point is this: if you perceive that the one teaching the error is a good, honest man who is just sincerely wrong, don't treat him like you would treat the divisive man. Instead of calling him out or embarrassing him in front of the church, wait until services are over and take him aside. Or if it is determined that the error should be corrected before the church is dismissed, do so tactfully and gently. If there are elders, it would be wise to let the elders handle the situation as they deem fit. Praise him for his efforts, for the good things he said, and then clarify the error. And most of all, encourage the individual to not to be discouraged. Like Apollos, the individual should be encouraged to move forward, to grow, and to remain active in studying, teaching and evangelizing (Acts 18:27-28).

Finally, the fact is, there may be some things - maybe many things - that ought to be overlooked. In other words, not every misquoted verse warrants a public correction. We need to exercise good judgment and only say something when we feel it is necessary.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dealing w/ Disagreements #1: A Divisive Man

First of all, I apologize for the ridiculously long title. I couldn't find a way to shorten it. 

Second, this is going to be the beginning of a series of articles on the different kinds of disagreements and divisions that might occur in the local church and how a different response ought to be implemented depending on the nature of the disagreement.

In this article, we're going to consider the worst kind of disagreement or controversy - when an individual, or even a group within the church, pushes a false doctrine all the while knowing it's going to stir up controversy and possibly divide the church.

We see several instances of such disagreements in the New Testament...
"And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders about this question" (Acts 15:1-2).
Just as we have our hot topics today, the issue of circumcision was one of the most controversial issues in the first century churches. The Judaizing teachers from Judea knew that by teaching the necessity of circumcision, they were bringing an already emotionally-charged issue to the forefront. And what were these brethren doing in Antioch anyways? Clearly, their objective was to push their doctrine on the church in Antioch, even if it resulted in discouragement and division.

So how did Paul and Barnabas react? They openly and unashamedly debated these Judaizing teachers. Because this issue was being pushed openly, they responded openly. Because it was pushed forcibly on the church, the response merited equal force.

Paul had to deal with other false teachers, too, among whom were Alexander, Hymenaeus and Philetus...
"This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:18-20).
"But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some" (2 Tim. 2:16-18).
Hymenaeus is the common denominator in both texts. Assuming it's the same person - I many men in the church were named Hymenaeus? - it appears that he was a constant problem in the church. He, along with Alexander and Philetus, were pushing a doctrine that was contrary to one of the core doctrines of Christianity; they were disputing the issue of the resurrection. We know that this was an issue in Corinth (read 1 Cor. 15) and even Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4). So like circumcision, this was another divisive issue in the first century churches, and yet that didn't stop these three men from spreading their error. As a result, many Christians were acting in an ungodly manner, and the faith of others had been destroyed!

In these few examples (and others could be cited), we learn that the false doctrines were not only controversial (and emotionally-charged), but also destructive, or at least potentially destructive. These were not mere academic squabbles; these were serious disagreements over issues that had an obvious impact on the early Christians.

And each time, we are told that Paul acted quickly and forcibly! He openly debated the Judaizing teachers in Antioch, and administered spiritual discipline to Alexander and Hymenaeus, openly withdrawing fellowship from them and marking them as servants of Satan (1 Tim. 1:20).

Also consider...
"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 16:16-17).
"For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped..." (Titus 1:10-11).
"Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition" (Titus 3:10).
These three passages supplement what we've already learned by example. When there is someone in the church propagating error, whether privately ("subverting whole households") or publically (via sermons, Bible classes in the church), the church must be swift in implementing these steps.

If the error is being taught openly in the church by an individual who knows that he's stirring up conflict and controversy, there ought to be a public response. Men (ideally the elders) ought to stand up for the truth just as Paul and Barnabas did in Antioch. But whether the error is taught publically or privately, the divisive man ought to be warned twice, then publically marked as a false teacher (assuming he doesn't repent), and then finally rejected by the church.

It IS worth pointing out that in any conflict, both sides are going to feel justified. In other words, the divisive man may not see himself as a divisive man; the false teacher may not see himself as a false teacher. Perhaps the Judaizing teachers in Acts 15 felt truly convinced that circumcision was necessary, and saw themselves, not as false teachers dividing the church, but as brave proponents of truth. Maybe in their eyes, Paul and Barnabas were the false teachers. I don't know.

So what are we to do when both sides feel like they have the truth?

First of all, from the church's perspective, there needs to be a sense of conviction among the members, and certainly the leadership. Yes, we are all fallible, but we must diligently study the Scriptures, we should know what we believe, and we should be able to defend what we believe (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 4:2; 1 Pet. 3:15). We cannot give ground to false teachers on the basis that we may be wrong

What if the church is wrong? Or what if an individual believes that the church is wrong, and he has a desire to guide the church to the truth? If we learn anything from these scriptures, it's not that disagreements can't be discussed - we should always be open-minded and willing to admit fault and/or reconsider our position on an issue (Acts 17:11) - it's that we ought to avoid handling our disagreements in a manner that is divisive. 

In other words, if you disagree with your church, instead of getting up in front of the church and preaching a lesson that you know is going to divide and splinter the church, and instead of dividing and conquering the church with your theory (even if you believe it's the truth), ask to study with the elders, or with the leading men in the congregation. Simply put, put the unity of the church before your agenda. If you have the truth, be patient, loving, and understand that it may take time for doors to open.

This article was a bit longer and more intensive, so thank you for your time and consideration.

Click here to read the second article in this series.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Does God NEED Us?

Does God need us? Does He need our prayers, our worship, our acts of kindness, our righteousness, our blessings? Is His essence sustained or depleted by what we do or don't do? The answer is found in Acts 17:24-25...
"God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things."
We should not be so arrogant as to think that our activities here on this earth somehow sustain God. He doesn't need our worship. He doesn't need our righteousness. He doesn't need our prayers. Instead, it is us who need Him, in both the physical and the spiritual sense. 

However, even though God doesn't need us, He absolutely wants us to realize our need for Him, to seek Him, and to obtain fellowship with Him.
"And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being..." (Ac. 17:27-28).
God is "longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
"'Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,' says the Lord. 'Therefore, turn and live'" (Ezek. 18:31-32).
 "Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10).
And of course, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16)
Isn't it amazing that even though God didn't need to create or save us, and even though He didn't have to create or save us, He did so...because He wanted to. Why would the Creator of the universe want anything to do with us? The easy answer is that He loved us. But then...why would He love us? Why should He, after all we've done? The easy answer, again, is "God is love" (1 John 4:8). But how and why is God love? therein lies the question that is at the center of the greatest mystery this world has ever known or will know. The truth is, I don't know. I cannot even begin to comprehend the depths of God's love or why He is the way He is, but I know God's love is real, and I know it has transformed my life, and therefore I am indescribably thankful.

God doesn't need us. He wants us.

But I need Him. Do you? 

Yes, of course you need Him. But do you realize it? I hope you will.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Silencing Women...or Prophetesses?

The following article is being written in response to a question I received just this morning. This is a good question, and the one who asked it has given me a wonderful opportunity to restudy a difficult passage, and for that I am very thankful. Having said that, this question is at the heart of a difficult and controversial debate, and it is VITAL that we enter into this study with the intent of discovering and embracing God's will on the matter - not what we think, or want, or feel - but God's will! If, after reading this article, you disagree on biblical grounds, please contact me for further study.

The question I received this morning had to do with 1 Corinthians 14:34 and whether or not the command for women to remain silent in the assembly applies to all women, or just to the prophetesses (female prophets) of the first century (i.e. a specific class of women). Here is the text:
"Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church" (vs. 34-35).
First of all, I'd like to quickly point out that Paul is referring to the time when the whole church is assembled in one place for the common purpose of worship/edification (1 Cor. 11:18, 20; 14:23). So Paul is not commanding women to remain silent in all spiritual conversations, or in group studies, or even in Bible classes (when the church is split up in different rooms for different studies). This command, in other words, has specific application to the worship assembly.

Now to the real question: does this command pertain to all women, or to a certain class of women in the first century churches (i.e. the prophetesses)? The reason that some limit this command to the prophetesses of the first century is because Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12-14, is setting forth principles governing miraculous gifts in the church. We know, based on Acts 21:8-9 that there were female prophets in the first century. Therefore, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, as Paul limits the use of tongues and prophecy, it is assumed that he is simply limiting the female prophets, not all women.

The problem with this interpretation is that it cannot be proven that Paul was speaking only of prophetesses in the first century. One has to assume that only prophetesses are under consideration. It is true that Paul says a lot in this chapter about the use of miraculous gifts in the church, but that doesn't mean that everything in this chapter has to do with miraculous gifts. Paul refers to non-miraculous prayers (vs. 15), teachings (vs. 19), and psalms (vs. 26). He stresses throughout the chapter that all things were to be done for edification (vs. 12, 26). The assembly was to be decent and orderly (vs. 40). So the Corinthians' misuse of miraculous gifts was merely illustrative of Paul's primary message, which was/is that we need to conduct the assembly with a spirit of reverence and selflessness.

So instead of assuming that the women in verse 34 were prophetesses, we need to recognize that Paul was simply setting forth another regulation for the assembly. Not only were the prophets, the tongue-speakers, the teachers, the song-leaders and the leaders of prayer to conduct themselves appropriately, the women also were regulated. And Paul, by inspiration, regulated the women by commanding them to be silent in the assembly.

Furthermore, the Greek seems to distinguish between women (generally) and prophetesses (specifically). The Greek word for prophetess is prophetis (Luke 2:36; Rev. 2:20). In 1 Corinthians 14, the Greek word prophetis is nowhere found. However, the Greek word prophetes (prophets) is used throughout. Conversely, in verse 34, the word for women is gune, which, in the Greek, refers to women and wives. Now, if Paul was specifically directing this command to the prophetesses, why didn't he use the Greek word prophetis or even prophetes? Or why does he not even mention the gift of prophecy in verse 34? Perhaps it's because he was speaking more generally to all women, not to prophetesses specifically.

Women may actively teach and spread the gospel. Women may be active in spiritual conversations. In the first century, the prophetesses could prophesy privately, or in settings outside of the church assembly. But God, in His wisdom, has commanded women to remain silent during the church assembly. If we're going to limit this command to a class of women in the first century, we need to have concrete evidence within the text to solidify that conclusion...evidence which doesn't appear to exist.

Again, this is a controversial text. If I am wrong, please be a friend and show me my error, because the last thing I want to do is bind where God has not bound, or limit women (or anyone) in a way that God has not limited them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

John 3:14-15 - the Golden "Context" of the Bible

It doesn't matter who you are, you've heard...we've all heard, of John 3:16. It's perhaps the most oft-cited verse in the Bible, and is called "the golden text" of the Bible. Many people, and most of you, I'm sure, can quote the verse from memory. But in case you need a little refreshing, here it is...
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
This really is a "golden text." The message of John 3:16 is simple and yet so informative as to the theme of the Holy Scriptures, which is that God provided redemption and salvation to sinful man through the perfect sacrifice of His own Son! And yet despite the text's simplicity and beauty, many religious people misuse this verse. They argue that in order to be saved, all that sinful man must do is believe in Jesus. It is then argued that if we require anything in addition to faith, we're preaching a "works-based" salvation.

To remedy this abuse of the golden text of the Bible, let's consider what I call the "golden context" of the Bible - John 3:14-15. So that you can get the whole message, I'll quote verse 16 here, too...
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
The sacrifice of Christ (on the cross) is compared to the lifting up of the serpent by Moses. This is a reference to the story of the "Bronze Serpent," which is found in Numbers 21. While in the wilderness, the Israelites often complained against Moses and against God. In this story, they accused Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Then, if that wasn't enough, they complained about the bread (i.e. Manna) that God provided to sustain them. So what did God do?
"So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died" (Num. 21:6).
The Israelites acknowledged their sin and asked Moses to intercede on their behalf before God. After Moses prayed for the people, the Lord gave instructions regarding their deliverance (from the serpents).
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived" (Num. 21:8-9).
Were these people delivered from the bronze serpents by faith alone? No! They clearly believed and even repented in verse seven, apparently not long after the fiery serpents infiltrated the camp. To be delivered, the people had to look at a BRONZE serpent that God had commanded Moses to build and raise up on a pole. When they looked at the elevated object, they would be delivered. Perhaps there were some who, in order to see the object, had to limp around a tree or tent, or even through the camp before it came into view. I don't know. What I do know is that if they wanted to escape God's wrath, they had to believe, repent, and take action...and specifically, the action that God specified: look at the bronze serpent. Was this a "works-based" salvation? Did they "earn" their healing and deliverance? Of course not.

So, in John 3:16, is Jesus saying that all we have to do is believe in Him to be saved? According to the "golden context" of the Bible, which includes the previous two verses, saving faith cannot be separated from obedience. That's the comparison. That's the context...the "golden context."

Monday, September 3, 2012

Modern-Day Tassels

I'm going to begin this article with a passage from the Old Testament, and while the passage itself might seem kind of dry, there is, I believe, a valuable lesson here. So bear with me...
"Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God" (Numbers 15:37-40).
God knew that His people were going to be tempted by idolatry. He knew that the world's pull on them would be strong, and so he commanded them to attach these tassels to their garments to remind them of their duty to obey the commandments of the Lord. Why tassels? Why blue thread? I can't say for sure, but that doesn't change the purpose of the commandment. 

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 6:7-9, they were commanded to write the words of the Law on the doorposts of their house and their gates. Why? To keep the people from forgetting the Lord (Deut. 6:12).

The law is written on our hearts (2 Cor. 3:3; Heb. 8:10), and yet I cannot help but think that it's good to have reminders of God and His word...things that we have around us that direct our minds back to God. What are your modern-day tassels? What might you surround yourself with that will have the same effect as these blue-threaded tassels of old?

Maybe you have pictures hanging up on your walls of Bible verses. When I turn on my cell-phone, there is a message that comes on the screen: "Redeem the time" (Eph. 5:16). Maybe it's a sign above your television set that says, "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes" (Psalm 101:3). Some folks sign up for daily devotional emails, or daily scripture readings on Facebook.

Again, what are your modern-day tassels? What things have you placed in your life to remind you of the Lord?

Of course, we can take this to such an extreme that such "tassels" become a crutch. In other words, we might use these signs, pictures and email alerts to provide spiritual stimulation all the while neglecting our actual Bibles. Worse yet, these "tassels" can become idols in our lives so that instead of having a strong, inward faith, our "faith" is sustained by visual aids and tangible objects. Such a faith is superficial.

Avoid these two extremes, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surround yourself with things that remind you of the Lord. Because certainly, we are all surrounded by things that detract from the Lord...and we need all the help we can get to stay focused.