Thursday, October 31, 2013

Growing a Football Farm

Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas was struggling to pay for its football program, so Michael Sorrell, the president of the college, decided to end the program. This sparked some initial outrage, and the football field sat empty for a year! After talking to a friend who happened to be a real estate agent, he decided to make use of the vacant field. As the picture below shows, they turned the football field into a farm. Not only can students earn money for working on the farm, the produce is sold to local distributors including Cowboys Stadium. Now, instead of a deficit, the school has been running a six to seven figure surplus each year. The full story can be accessed here, and it's worth reading.

As I was reflecting upon this story, it occurred to me that there is a valuable spiritual lesson here...
"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit" (John 15:1-2).
If you're anything like me, there have been times in your life when you have not been productive in God's service. There are many reasons for this, ranging from business to an increasing amount of worldliness in our hearts. Like the football field at Paul Quinn College, our spiritual life becomes vacant. Instead of blessing God's kingdom with revenue, return and surplus, we symbolize a deficit.

Either we can settle for complacency, or, like Paul Quinn College, we can use the vacant soil of our hearts and the vacant areas of our lives to create opportunities for God to work in and through us.

Maybe we need to be studying God's word more to fill our minds with spiritual thoughts that will, in turn, positively impact our work-ethic, our relationships and our daily attitudes. Maybe we need to better use our time to be a blessing to our family, to our church, to our community.

I love how this football field was transformed. I love the creativity and ingenuity behind this project. I also understand that such projects require not only a creative and willing mind, but a lot of time and patience. In closing, I'd like for you to consider the pictures below and imagine your own future at each of these stages. Where are you now? What do you need to do to mirror this same transformation in your own spiritual life?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Lesson From Jericho

In Joshua 6:2, the Lord said to Joshua, "See! I have given Jericho into your hands, its king, and the mighty men of valor." Because the Lord had already given Jericho to the Israelites, was it truly in their possession? No. God went on to instruct Joshua and the Israelites on how they were to conquer the city. After marching around the city once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day, GOD caused the walls to fall down flat. We then read, "Then the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city" (vs. 20). In one sense, God had already given the city to them, but in another sense, the city wasn't theirs until they obeyed God and took it.

In 1 John 2:25, we read, "And this is the promise that He has promised us - eternal life." When a person is born again by water and the spirit (John 3:5), they are saved in the same way that God had given Jericho into the hands of Israel - by promise. God is true and He will follow through on His promises. But there is a sense in which we do not receive salvation until we have obeyed the Lord and lived faithfully unto Him (Mt. 7:21-23; Heb. 5:9; Rev. 2:10).

Having said that, our obedience does not merit our salvation any more than the Israelites themselves made the walls of Jericho fall down flat. Joshua 6:16-20 tells us that even after they obeyed God's instructions, it was the Lord who gave them the city and made the walls fall down flat.

So, God promises us salvation. We accept His terms and set out to obey His will. It is after our obedience and faithfulness that we finally and truly obtain salvation...not because we have earned it, but because we have humbled ourselves before God.

Am I saved now? Yes and no. Yes, because God has promised me salvation. No, because I will not reap the eternal benefits of salvation until I have been judged and given a place in heaven.

Friday, October 18, 2013

"Save Me! Save Me From the Big, Bad Church!"

In my ten years of preaching, there have been a few occasions where a fellow brother or sister in Christ has fallen away from the Lord. Of course, the New Testament teaches that when this happens, we must engage in a process that begins with attempts to persuade the erring saint to return to the Lord and that ends (if there is no repentance) with the removal of fellowship (1 Cor. 5). I have been in those business meetings and have taken part in those awkward conversations with brethren where these situations have been discussed. What is the issue? Why has this person fallen away? Who's going to visit and encourage this person? How much time are we going to give them? was always understand that IF this person didn't repent, we would have to follow the instructions of 1 Corinthians 5 by publicly removing fellowship and even privately ending our social interaction with them (vs. 10-11; 2 Thess. 3:14).

These discussions and decisions are never easy, but unfortunately, there have been times when certain brethren (usually friends and family of the erring Christian) have made the situation so much more difficult by resisting the church's efforts to admonish and/or discipline the erring Christian. Some merely try to stall the process while others get angry. They feel the need to protect their friend or family member from the "big, bad church." While they themselves often disapprove of the conduct of the erring Christian, they may feel that the church is unloving and that with a little more patience and tender encouragement, the person may come around on their time...maybe...even if all that means is that they're grudgingly showing up at church once a week to avoid discipline.

Along these same lines - and to make the issue more personal - it's common for someone to see or hear about the sinful practices of a fellow Christian and to respond by doing all they can to keep it hidden from principled brethren, especially the church's leadership. Certainly, if you see a fellow Christian making sinful choices or living a double-life, your first step SHOULDN'T be to tell others about it; your first step should be to go to that person privately (Prov. 11:13; Mt. 18:15). And if that's what's happening, then great! But there is a problem, I believe, when we see brethren living a double-life and "cover" for them and seek to hide their sin from others in the church.

It's almost as if some have become convinced that the real enemy is not Satan or sin, but the church.

I've been reading in Deuteronomy and stumbled upon these two passages recently. While we're not bound to the old law, I truly believe that the mindset here IS echoed in the New Testament. I would love to see more brethren respond to sin this way...
"If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, 'Let us go and serve other gods,' which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the all Israel shall hear and fear, and not again do such wickedness as this among you" (Deut. 13:6-9, 11).
"If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones...The hands of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you" (Deut. 17:2-5, 7).
Instead of taking offense when the unrepentant sin of a friend or loved one (in the church) is exposed, we ought to be the one exposing it and holding them accountable. Instead of delaying the church's efforts to deal with this sin, we ought to be the ones expediting the process. Instead of getting angry when our brethren seek to deal with our sin or with the sin of a loved one, we ought to be thankful...thankful that they have enough love and courage to do what God has commanded them to do.

If all Christians had this mindset, I can guarantee you that "church discipline" would be so much more effective and that more erring brethren would return to the Lord.

We have to make a choice. Either we trust God's plan or we do not. Either we truly love the Lord first and foremost, or we place friendship and family-ties above the Lord and His church.

Something to think about.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dressing Our Best for Worship

The following article is rather lengthy and has been included on this blog only because it is a subject of great interest for many religious people. 

        How should we dress for worship? Is there such a thing as inappropriate church attire? Must we “dress our best” for God? To show God reverence, must we dress a certain way? These are all very common…and yet controversial questions.
Let me first of all say that from my standpoint, I believe this is a personal issue. If one feels compelled to dress up for church, and especially if it’s a matter of conscience for them, then they really should dress up (Romans 14:23). Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up for church. There are even certain biblical principles that might be applied to our choice of church attire. But the question is this: does God’s word teach us that we show our reverence for God by “dressing up” for public worship? And is this something that we can bind?
            In this article, I’d like to first of all make the case that God’s word does not teach that our clothing has anything directly to do with our reverence for Him. Then, I’d like to address the common arguments that are often made for the other side. Please enter into this study with an open mind, and let all of us ultimately submit to the standard of God’s holy word (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Examples From the First Century

            If we’re going to equate our attire (clothing) with our reverence for God, we must first of all make this connection in the Scriptures. If the Scriptures teach us that we must dress up for worship as a sign of reverence for God, then we all must comply. However, if the Scriptures do not teach this – whether by command, approved example, or necessary inference – then we must relegate this to personal choice and refrain from judging others who do not meet “our” standards.
            When I read through the New Testament, I learn about Jesus, His disciples (during His ministry), and the church that was established following Jesus’ resurrection. As I review all of the details of the “Christian movement” of the first century, I never once see any emphasis being placed on the way they dressed for worship (or on many other things that we so cherish today).
During the ministry of Christ, Jesus and His disciples really didn’t have a home to stay in. Jesus Himself said that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). I don’t get the impression that Jesus and His disciples felt the need to dress up or be well-shaven on the basis that they revered the Father and wanted to properly represent Him through their appearance. Do you?
The same is true with the church of the first century. Most of these churches met in homes (Rom. 16:5; Philemon 1:1) or in central places such as upper rooms (Acts 20:7). We know, historically, that the Christians in Rome often would sneak through the city to assemble together in the catacombs. I have a really hard time believing that these saints dressed up in their “Sunday best” before heading to worship in the catacombs or in a home. History will bear out that church worship became a much more formal affair in the evolution of the Catholic church, and that this formal view of worship carried over into Protestantism. Fancy church buildings, rigid worship, well-dressed worshipers, etc. – all of this has become quite traditional for churches today, but this was not the norm in the first century.
To provide some actual historical evidence, consider the following, rather lengthy quote, from Frank Viola’s work, “Pagan Christianity”:

“The practice of dressing up for church is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began in the late-eighteenth century with the Industrial Revolution, and it became widespread in the mid-nineteenth century. Before this time, “dressing up” for social events was known only among the very wealthy. The reason was simple. Only the well-to-do aristocrats of society could afford nice clothing! Common folks had only two sets of clothes: work clothes for laboring in the field and less tattered clothing for going into town.

Dressing up for any occasion was only an option for the wealthiest nobility. From medieval times until the eighteenth century, dress was a clear marker of one’s social class. In places like England, poor people were actually forbidden to wear the clothing of the “better” people.

This changed with the invention of the mass textile manufacturing and the development of urban society. Fine clothes became more affordable to the common people. The middle class was born, and those within it were able to emulate the envied aristocracy. For the first time, the middle class could distinguish themselves from the peasants. To demonstrate their newly improved status, they could now “dress up” for social events just like the well-to-do.

Some Christian groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resisted this cultural trend. John Wesley wrote against wearing expensive clothing to their meetings. The early Baptists also condemned fine clothing, teaching that it separated the rich from the poor.

Despite these protests, mainstream Christians began wearing fine clothes whenever they could. The growing middle class prospered, desiring bigger homes, larger church buildings, and fancier clothing. As the Victorian enculturation of the middle class grew, fancier  church buildings began to draw more influential people in society.

This all came to a head when in 1843, Horace Bushnell, and influential Congregational minister in Connecticut, published an essay called “Taste and Fashion.” In it, Bushnell argued that sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them. Thus was born the idea of dressing up for church to honor God. Church members now worshiped in elaborately decorated buildings sporting their formal clothes to honor God.

In 1846, a Virginia Presbyterian named William Henry Foote wrote that “a church-going people are a dress loving people.” This statement simply expressed the formal dress ritual that mainstream Christians had adopted when going to church. The trend was so powerful that by the 1850s, even the “formal-dress resistant” Methodists got absorbed by it. And they, too, began wearing their Sunday best to church.

            In response to this excellent quote from Frank Viola, I’d like to clarify one thing so as not to offend any of my readers. While I do believe that the concept of “dressing up” for worship has the aforementioned historical origins and that folks mainly dressed up in the past to show their social status, I do not necessarily believe that this is the motivation for every finely-dressed person today. I do believe that many “dress up” to show their respect for God and that their motives are pure. My point in citing history here is not to judge motives today, but to show that the notion of “dressing up” for church has historical, not biblical origins.
            To be fair, one who is a strong proponent of “dressing up” for church (as a sign of reverence for God) and who believes the Bible supports their position most likely believes that God’s people have always dressed up for church whether history bears that out or not. In other words, if it’s a scriptural principle, than those who have respected the Scriptures throughout history certainly would have submitted to this principle. Right? Well, we’ll come back to the alleged scriptural evidence for this concept later in the article, so please bear with me.

“Judges With Evil Thoughts”

            Not only did the Christians of the first century NOT have such a formal approach to worship, and not only did they NOT “dress up” for worship (that we have record of), the New Testament actually seems to strongly discourage the practice of equating reverence with attire.
            In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul writes, “…in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness.” Apparently, there were some Christian women in the first century who were “dressing up” to show off their wealth. They were trying to stand out in the crowd. Paul admonishes such women to place more emphasis on their inward appearance – to be godly and pure first and foremost. While Paul isn’t saying that jewelry or expensive clothing are wrong, he is discouraging that image. Notice that Paul doesn’t tell these women to dress up, but to dress themselves with a better, more spiritual motive. He stresses the inward appearance. We see these same instructions in 1 Peter 3:3-4.
            In James 2:1-4, we read the following: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing fine clothes…have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:1-2, 4). We generally assume that James here is speaking about visitors, not mature Christians, but in all fairness, we do not know. Perhaps this was a fellow brother who was visiting from out of town, or even a member of that same church. However, it really doesn’t matter, because the point is still made that we shouldn’t look at a person’s outward appearance – specifically, their clothing – and judge their heart. What this has to mean is that a person can still be totally sincere and reverent toward God without “dressing their best.” In fact, when we make such judgments, we are called “judges with evil thoughts.” I do not want the Lord to say that about me, do you?
            First Samuel 16:7 says, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Jesus echoed this principle in John 7:24 when He said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

Defining Reverence As God Does

If we are going to say that we must “dress our best” to show reverence for God, again, we must have scriptural precedent. How does God define reverence? Does God connect our attire and reverence?
To revere God is to respect, fear and venerate Him. After all, He is our Creator and is so far above us. More than this, we are accountable to Him and will one day have to stand before His judgment seat. Paul says 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.” We should fear and reverence God by choosing “good” works as Paul here says. In other words, our obedience is a sign of our reverence. And “good works” are defined solely by God’s word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Through our obedience to the teachings of Christ, we are showing that we fear God and respect His will. If the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9) does not define “dressing our best” as a “good work,” then we cannot equate it with reverence and we certainly cannot judge others as irreverent who do not dress up for worship.
In Hebrews 10:26-30, the inspired writer speaks about the consequences of those who “sin willfully” after having received the knowledge of the truth. Then, in verse 31, he writes, “It is a fearful thing to fall in to the hands of the living God.” To fear and reverence God is defined here is living righteously and obediently. Later, in Hebrews 12:28-29, we read, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” Once again, the Scriptures define reverence as “[serving] God acceptably.” God defines what it means to serve Him acceptably…in His word!
Even in the Old Testament where God’s covenant was very physical and outward in so many ways, Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 that we’re to “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
A person shows their reverence for God by identifying who He is, what His will is, and by sincerely doing His will. With this in mind, the person who understands the importance of assembling with the church regularly is showing their reverence for God (Heb. 10:24-25). The person who seeks to bear the “fruit of the Spirit” in his life is showing his reverence for God (Gal. 5:22-23). The woman who submits to her husband as she submits to Christ, and conversely, the man who loves His wife as Christ loves the church, are showing their reverence for God (Eph. 5:22-25). The person who seeks to live blamelessly in the world so as to be that “shining light” is truly reverent (Phil. 2:15). The person who loves the Lord with all his heart, soul and mind reveres Him (Mt. 22:37-38). I could go on here, but I’m sure you get the point.
If we’re going to say that folks must revere God by “dressing their best,” we must show how this is a “good work” in the Scriptures. Otherwise, we must relegate this to private choice and refrain from binding our standard on others.

The Danger of Binding Human Traditions

            As I’m sure you can tell by now, I do not believe that the Scriptures connect our attire with our level of reverence for God. Therefore, if this is not a biblical requirement, it can only be a human tradition. Now, as I’ll explain later, I do believe that as individuals we have the right to dress up for worship…and if one believes in their heart that they must, then they must (Rom. 14:23). However, when we begin to bind a “dress code” or judge others’ hearts based on their dress, we have crossed a line.
            In Matthew 15:1-2, we read the following: “Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, ‘Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.’” These Jewish leaders were binding a human tradition on others, weren’t they? But did they not have reason for such a tradition? After all, those who entered the Temple were to wash their hands (Exodus 30:18-21). And can’t we see that, symbolically, we want to appear clean before God? This all sounds reasonable, and we might be able to see their logic, but the fact is, the Law of Moses didn’t require that the Jews wash their hands before eating. They even acknowledged as much by referring to this as a “tradition of the elders.” And yet they bound their extra-biblical tradition on Jesus’ disciples.
How did Jesus respond? He said, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (vs. 3). He infers here that what really matters is God’s commandments, not human traditions. Then He said in verse seven, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘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 as doctrines the commandments of men” (vs. 7-9).
First of all, Jesus defines for us once again what true reverence is all about. True reverence involves sincerity and obedience. Our hearts must be “near” unto God, and we must be in obedience to God’s commandments. Isn’t that what Jesus here is emphasizing?
Secondly, and more to the point, Jesus plainly says that when we take a human tradition and make it a commandment, we are worshiping in “vain.” Please notice that their “tradition” wasn’t even connected directly to public worship. They were mandating that the Jews wash their hands before they ate, and yet from that, Jesus concluded that their worship was “in vain,” or empty.
If the concept of “dressing our best” is a human tradition, and if we’re binding our subjective standard on others, are we any different from the scribes and Pharisees in this text? And what are the consequences? This is a very serious matter, as I’m sure you can see. As I’ve written many times already in this article, we need to relegate this matter to private choice and not bind our subjective standards on others in the church lest we be guilty of “vain” worship, and lest we be called “judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4).

The Other Side of the Issue: Principles Relating To Our Dress

            I have striven in this article to prove that we cannot equate our dress with our reverence for God and that we especially cannot bind a human tradition on others. However, I am not opposed to “dressing up” for worship and actually believe that there are some scriptural principles that can be applied here. First, I’d like to relate to you these principles, and then I’ll discuss the nature of principles.
            First of all, there is the principle of our influence. In Matthew 17:24-28, we learn that the Jews expected Jesus to pay the Temple tax. It’s clear in verse 25 that Jesus didn’t feel compelled to pay it, and yet for the sake of influence and keeping the peace, He said to Peter, “Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you” (vs. 27). Jesus sacrificed His liberty to avoid offending the Jews He was trying to teach and influence.
            In Acts 16:3, when Paul decided to take Timothy along with him on his missionary journeys, “he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.” We know that circumcision is not required by the New Testament, but Timothy sacrificed his liberty for the same reason that Jesus had sacrificed His; it was about influence.
            Likewise, if we live in a society where NOT “dressing up” will hurt our influence, we ought to individually make the choice to sacrifice our liberty and dress up...for the sake of influence. We see this in 1 Corinthians 9:22 as well when Paul says, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” When it’s essential to maintain our influence, we ought to dress up.
            It is worth pointing out here, that while we have the example of Timothy, we also have the example of Titus in Galatians 2:3-5. Here, Paul recounts, “Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in…to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.” Timothy chose to be circumcised so that his influence would not be hindered among those he and Paul were trying to convert. However, Titus did not sacrifice his liberty in this area; he refused to be circumcised when false brethren made it a requirement. By comparison, we might choose to “dress up” for worship because we want to maintain our influence with certain ones, but when the matter is forced upon us, a line has been crossed and a difference response is appropriate.
            A second principle worth considering here – and this one is similar to the first one – is the principle of modesty. Earlier, we read 1 Timothy 2:9-10 where Paul encourages women to dress in “modest apparel.” The word modest is from the Greek word kosmios which means “orderly, that is, decorous: - of good behavior, modest.” The root of kosmios is kosmos which refers to the world. To make a long story short, when Paul commands us to be modest, he is telling us to recognize the world’s standards of dress and fashion and to dress appropriately so that we do not stand out. There are limits to this, for we cannot allow ourselves to be insufficiently clothed, or “naked” no matter what. However, to apply this principle to our current discussion, if our society dictates that we ought to “dress up” for worship to show our reverence for God or for the occasion, then we should. If society says “dress up” and we are seen going to church in shorts or sweatpants, then we are being immodest, or inappropriate.
            In response to these few principles, I’d like to make a few quick points.
            First of all, I think we all understand that this is societal anyways. Brethren who worship in small, rural churches often wear blue jeans and (maybe) a nice, button up shirt. Brethren overseas, especially in warm climates, might wear shorts and flip flops to church. Historically, we know that there were times when standards were very high, and times when standards were much lower. Even in the 20th century, standards were much higher fifty years ago than they are now. Do we condemn these brethren who have lower standards than we do? Generally, we do not, and rightly so. In fact, if we were to worship with these brethren, I doubt we would insist on wearing our suits and ties or “Sunday dresses.” Furthermore, we know that these traditions are societal because we do not apply the same standard of “dressing our best” to Sunday night and Wednesday night services. If it were really a matter of reverence, we would have the same standard for all services. But we do not…because society says that this is okay.
            Second, I truly believe that society no longer has the belief that we must “dress our best” for worship. Certainly, there are many churches out there who do have this belief, but by and large, we have shifted as a society to a point where blue jeans and even shorts are acceptable. There are a lot of very popular, contemporary churches that are highly respected by Christendom and by society, who have absolutely no standards of dress. This wouldn’t have been the case a few decades ago, but it is now. So I don’t know that this principle of modesty or even the principle of influence really apply anymore like they once did.
            Okay, the third and final principle that I’ll mention is that of sacrificing rights for weaker brethren. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul makes the point that while there was nothing wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, some brethren did not have that same knowledge (vs. 7); for them, eating that meat was an act of worship to the idol. Therefore, Paul said to the stronger brethren (who felt comfortable exercising this right), “But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (vs. 9-13).
            Does this principle apply to the issue at hand? Is Paul saying that if there are certain folks in the church who feel that we must “dress our best” to show reverence for God that we must all therefore sacrifice our liberty and just dress up to appease these brethren? While the issue may apply, I would suggest to you that the above scenario is not a proper application. Allow me to explain.
            Paul is NOT saying here that we must sacrifice our liberties and conform to the traditions or opinions of certain brethren in the church. He is specifically encouraging us to sacrifice our liberties if and only if the exercise of those liberties will embolden a weak brother to violate his conscience and sin against Christ. So let’s say that there is a person in the church who believes that they must “dress up” for worship. First of all, they are the weak brother, by definition. But let’s say that they are so weak in this area that when others do not dress up as they do, they themselves are emboldened to dress down in violation of their own conscience. If this is the case, then we all ought to choose, out of love for that brother, to forego our liberty and “dress up.” In the meantime, we ought to teach this weak brother.
            But this is not usually the case. Usually, it is a matter of mature Christians who have an unbiblical definition of reverence and who are binding their opinion on their brethren and judging their hearts. This is where Romans 14 comes into play (which has a different message than 1 Corinthians 8). Here, Paul is still talking about the manner in which we deal with issues of liberty, but here, the situation is a bit different. Paul says in Romans 14:1-4, “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. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.”
So we must tell both sides of the story here. While it’s absolutely true that we must sacrifice our liberties in the event that we are emboldening a weaker brother to violate his conscience, when it’s simply a matter of different opinions being held within the church, both sides are instructed not to judge the other. In regard to “dressing up” for worship, those who wear their “Sunday best” should not be judgmental or critical of those who do not “dress up,” as if they are somehow less reverent, nor should those who come in more casual attire judge the others as “holier than thou.” The importance of this point cannot be overstated!
But I will say this: in the case where the “formally-dressed brethren” force or intimidate the “casually dressed brethren” to “dress up” for worship to appease them, the problem is not with the “casually dressed brethren” who chafe against such pressure; the problem is with the “formally-dressed brethren” who judge the hearts of the “casually-dressed brethren.” Romans 14 isn’t teaching the “casually-dressed brethren” to forego their liberty and “dress up,” but rather that brethren from both sides need to refrain from judging the others.

The Nature of Principles
            Having stated the above principles, there is something that we must understand about the nature of principles. While commands are clear, specific and must be bound upon others, principles are generic…and while the principles can be bound, we cannot necessarily bind our application of them.
            For example, Romans 13:14 says, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” This is a principle that we can and must teach to our brethren, but can I bind my application of it? Let’s say that, based on this principle, I decide that I’m not going to watch TV because of all the filthiness and immorality it promotes. Can I then judge my brethren who do choose to watch some TV? Of course not.
            In Ephesians 5:16, we’re told to “[redeem] the time, because the days are evil.” Let’s say that I interpret this to mean (for me) that I’m not going to  watch TV or be a sports fanatic or play golf…because, after all, these things take up a lot of time and have little to do with God. I’m permitted to make these decisions, but can I then criticize my brother who golfs 18 holes every Saturday? No.
            Likewise, with the aforementioned principles regarding our dress, we can teach and bind those principles, and we can even encourage others to consider our application of those principles, but we cannot turn our conclusion into a commandment and then bind it across the board. Because ultimately, while the principle is clearly stated, the application isn’t, and when I bind that which isn’t specified on others, I am adding to God’s commandments and am no different than the Pharisees of old. Does that make sense? I hope it does.
            Personally, I might choose to wear a suit and tie on Sunday because the aforementioned principles compel me to do so, but (1) my reasons have nothing directly to do with reverence for God, and (2) I cannot and must not bind my practice on others and/or view them as less reverent.

Addressing Arguments For the Other Side

            I do not believe that there is any scriptural precedent for equating our dress with our reverence for God. However, those on the other side of this issue do have their reasons for believing what they do. Before I conclude this study, I’d like to respond to these arguments.

“I Still Believe That We Should Dress Up to Show Our Reverence.”

            There are those who, despite everything I’ve explained in this article, will still make the above statement. Listen, we have to allow God to define what is and what is not truly reverent. Wouldn’t you agree? So if God does not tie our dress with our reverence, then neither can we. God defines reverence as obedience to His will from the heart. Nothing more. Nothing less.
            But again, if you believe that you must dress up to show your reverence for God, even if that’s not taught in the Scriptures – if, for you, it would violate your conscience to show up on Sunday morning in a pair of blue jeans, then don’t do it. Romans 14:23 says that “whatever is not from faith is sin.” Just don’t bind your opinion on others.

“The Priests of the Old Testament Had a Dress Code.”

            The argument is sometimes made that the priests of the Old Testament were expected to wear holy garments when they came into God’s presence in the Temple (Exodus 28). Then the connection is made to 1 Peter 2:9 where Christians today are called a “holy priesthood.” Therefore, the conclusion is drawn that we must “dress our best” when we come into God’s presence…as a sign of our reverence for Him.
            While it is true that we are priests today, we cannot assume that every dictate given to the levitical priests of old is applicable to us. For example, God also stipulated, “They shall not make any bald place on their heads, nor shall they shave the edges of their beards nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire…for the priest is holy to his God” (Lev. 21:5-7). Moses goes on to say in verses  18-20 that “any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand…” Must we then conclude that men cannot have goatees, mustaches or physical defects because, after all, we’re God’s priests today? Of course we don’t believe this. But if we’re going to be consistent with this argument, we have to forbid these things as well because Moses is very clear that these things violated the priest’s “holiness” before God.
            The fact is, dear reader, the Old Testament defined holiness much differently than does the New Testament. The Old Testament was very physical and overwhelming in terms of what it required (Acts 15:10). Jesus nailed it to the cross (Col. 2:14-16) and has provided us with the spiritual fulfillment. In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter provides us with a spiritual fulfillment of this principle when he writes, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
            Finally, the only reason that we’re called priests today is because we “offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). What are these spiritual sacrifices? Doesn’t God define them? If God doesn’t define “dressing our best” as a spiritual sacrifice, neither can we.

“The Saints Wore White Robes Before God in Revelation.”

            The argument is sometimes made that because the elders and saints wore white robes when they came into God’s presence in the book of Revelation, that we must show our reverence by “dressing up” for worship today.
            It’s true that this occurred in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 4:4, we read that “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their head.” In Revelation 6:10-11, the martyred saints were given white robes when they came before God.
            This argument doesn’t work for the simple reason that the book of Revelation is a book of symbolism that draws upon Old Testament imagery and language to make its points (Rev. 1:1). We cannot take a detail from this book and bind this symbolic detail in a literal way upon Christians. These white robes likely represented purity, not the importance of wearing a suit and tie or dress for Sunday worship.
            Furthermore, the elders also sat on thrones and wore crowns. Must we do the same? They also offered incense (Rev. 8:3-4), played harps (Rev. 5:8) and fell prostrate before God in reverence of Him (Rev. 7:11). Should we require that worshipers today fall on their faces when they sing as a sign of reverence?

“We Are to Sacrifice for God.”

            Jesus has told us in Matthew 16:24 that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Certainly, this principle of sacrifice is taught throughout the Scriptures. We must be willing to be uncomfortable and do that which isn’t easy for the sake of our Lord.
Some have even cited the example of David and Araunah’s threshing floor in 2 Samuel 24:18-24. Here, to stop God’s plague, David was told to “erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah” (vs. 18). When he informed Araunah of this, Araunah replied, “Let my lord the king take and offer up whatever seems good to him. Look, here are oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing implements, and the yokes of the oxen for wood. All these, O King, Araunah has given to the king” (vs. 22-23). But David replied, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price; nor will I offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God with that which costs me nothing.” Many have used this story to teach that we must sacrifice for our God by “dressing up” and wearing nice clothes to church.
First of all, as I have stated time and again in this article, we cannot redefine holiness or reverence…or even sacrifice for God. Nor can we take a general principle and bind our application of that principle. If you believe, based on this story, that you must go out and buy a $200 suit or dress, I’m not going to stop you or even discourage you, but you can’t redefine reverence for all of us.
Furthermore, based on Romans 12:1-2 aren’t we each to be “living sacrifices” for God? Isn’t our entire life to reflect our worship, our adoration, our sacrifice and our reverence toward God? Therefore, if we truly believe that our dress is a matter of reverence, then we must dress up all the time, and especially when we pray, sing, teach, or do anything for our God. If not, why not? By what standard can we bind “dressing up” for public worship, but not for private worship?

“We Would Dress Up for the President, So Why Not For God?”

            This argument isn’t always backed up with Scripture, but many will turn to Malachi 1:6-8 to make their case. Here, God speaks through Malachi to the spiritually apathetic Jews, saying, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is my honor? And if I am a Master, where is My reverence? Says the Lord of hosts to you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised your name?’ You offer defiled food on My altar, but say, ‘In what way have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord is contemptible.’ And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he then be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?’ says the Lord of hosts.”
            At first, this argument in connection with this passage seems to make a very compelling case. The Jews were offering better sacrifices to their governor than to God. Therefore, how can we believe that we must dress up for the President, but not for worship?
            Please notice in the above text that God wasn’t concerned with arbitrary things; He specifically used the example of “offerings.” We all know that the Law of Moses required that the Jews not only make offerings/sacrifices to God, but that they offer sacrifices “without blemish” (Ex. 12:5; 29:1, et al). These Jews had abandoned this command and were more concerned about their societal reputation than the judgment of God. Therefore, if God doesn’t care about our clothing (by defining it as reverence), then this text doesn’t apply. This text would apply only to issues where God has asked for our obedience/sacrifice.
A proper application of this text would be to our singing. God commands us to “sing…with grace in our hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16), and yet many sing halfheartedly in church all the while singing wholeheartedly at a concert or along with the radio.
            Having said that, it’s true that we would all dress up if we were to meet the President, or go to a wedding or funeral. However, we would dress up because this has been society’s standard…not God’s standard. To prove the point, the Jews of old would wear sackcloth (far from being “nice” clothing) when they were in mourning. We also know – and this is seen in John 11 – that when someone died, Jews would comfort the family by wailing and mourning for the bereaved. They didn’t have formal funerals like we do where everyone shows up in black attire, sits quietly and listens to a “funeral sermon.” So societal standards change.
            In the end, we cannot bind a societal standard as a biblical standard, nor can we define reverence for God in light of societal standards. Otherwise, what do we do with all the brethren in rural churches who wear blue jeans to church even though they wouldn’t before the President? And what do we do with the large segment of history where Christian did not dress formally for worship? Were they irreverent? I don’t think any of us would make such a charge.

“Our Clothing Communicates Our Attitude To Others.”

            I do not wish to devote a lot of time and attention to sharing with you the secular research that has been done on this point, but suffice it to say, our clothing does communicate something to others. Of course, different professions require a different type of attire (e.g. lawyer vs. janitor). But more than that, our clothing does often reflect our attitude or personality. A person who always wears black clothing, who dyes their hair black, and so on, is conveying something about their personality, and we judge those who dress this way, don’t we? A person who has a more relaxed, laid-back attitude is probably going to be more apt to wear shorts and a t-shirt, even to more formal events. On the other side, the person who is always wearing slacks and a tucked-in shirt probably has a more ordered life, is more wealthy, or simply cares more about his appearance.
            While our clothing can communicate something about our character, it is wrong to assume that because a person does not “dress up” for church, they are not as inwardly reverent as you might be. The person who shows up to church in a pair of shorts may have as much zeal and passion for the Lord as the next person. In other words, these are generalizations that we cannot make into absolutes.
            More importantly, I would point out to you that while our clothing may communicate something to others, we as Christians have an obligation to shut out this communication. As we have seen, we are told, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). So maybe a person’s more casual attire reflects a more casual spiritual outlook, but then again, maybe it doesn’t. In any event, do not assume that you know the person’s heart because of what they’re wearing. Otherwise, you become a judge with evil thoughts (Jas. 4:4). If you see spiritual apathy, deal with that, but don’t make an issue out of the way a person is dressed.

The Problem of Subjectivity

            The concept that we must “dress our best” for worship is either a clearly taught biblical standard that we can and must bind, or it is not. If it is not – and obviously, I believe it is not – then we are certainly permitted to have our own private convictions or feelings about the issue, but we cannot redefine reverence for others or bind our subjective standard on others.
            And, you know, there is so much subjectivity involved here. We’re to dress up for Sunday morning worship, but we’re allowed to dress more casually for Sunday night and Wednesday night assemblies. Are blue jeans good enough, or must we wear slacks? Can women wear pants? Must men wear a suit and tie, just a shirt and tie…or is a collared shirt good enough? Do these dress codes apply only to the men who are leading in the service? Should the elders, deacons and/or evangelist be held to a higher standard? Can we wear shirts that have logos and/or messages on them, or should our shirts be solid color? Must we “dress up” for public worship when we do not “dress up” for small group studies, singings, etc…even though Jesus is in our midst “where two or three are gathered together in My name” (Matthew 18:20)?

A Serious Matter!

            This is a serious matter for multiple reasons.
            First and foremost, when we redefine reverence and holiness, we are redefining God Himself and how others perceive Him. I’m reminded of how a husband might joke that his wife is “the real boss.” How does this portray the wife? As domineering. He may be joking, but such a statement may present a false image of his wife. Or sometimes a teenager will tell her friend that “Mom and Dad are so unfair; they don’t understand me at all!” Would this be an accurate representation of her parents? Probably not.
When we tell others that God requires that we all dress up to show our reverence for Him, we’re saying that God cares about our “outward appearance,” when in fact “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And while we may not intend to convey this message, in that person’s mind, we may be taking away from the true nature and definition of reverence…which is all about inward devotion and obedience.
And while it’s true that society may expect church-goers to “dress up” for worship, there are also many people in society who see all the finely-dressed people at church and are intimidated…to the point that they do not come to church. “I can never look like them or be like them,” they say. This happens more than you’d think.
            Secondly, this issue is important because, while it’s okay to have private opinions or convictions, the second we begin to teach others that they must dress a certain way, or the second that we make “laws” where God has not, we have become Pharisaical (Mt. 15:1-9) and judges with evil thoughts (James 4:4).
            In the end, instead of making our own laws and “dress codes,” we must leave this issue to personal judgment. As Paul says in Romans 14, “Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking (or how we “dress” for worship, CH), but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (vs. 17-19). Neither side should judge the other. Instead, let’s focus on what God has commanded, and let’s set aside these divisive traditions in favor of God-centered unity.

A Few Final Thoughts

            Imagine with me a world where we didn’t feel pressured to “dress up” and prepare our outward appearance for worship on Sunday. Instead of spending an hour ironing clothes, putting on makeup, styling hair and getting children dressed and primed for worship…just imagine with me a world where we could spend much of that time praying, studying, singing and meditating…to prepare ourselves spiritually for worship! Wouldn’t it be so nice to show up at church spiritually-prepared and tuned-in…not frazzled and stressed? And wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about what others think about our clothes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all came together to truly show our reverence for God by singing with our whole hearts (Eph. 5:19) and giving God our spiritual best?
            I understand that this is a controversial topic and that there are varying opinions. I’m sure that I haven’t addressed every passage or argument for and against my position. Much more could be said. But I hope and pray that what I have said makes sense to you.
            And again, please understand that I am not necessarily maligning the motives of those who “dress up” for worship. I believe that many, if not most worshipers, have pure motives. Furthermore, I’m not teaching against the notion of “dressing up,” nor am I encouraging you to wear sweatpants to church. Again, there are those principles (cited earlier) to consider. In fact, as an evangelist, I wear a shirt and tie on Sunday simply because I don’t want a non-issue like this to hinder my influence with anyone, whether they be Christians or not.

Finally, if you feel that I am wrong, please contact me and let me know. Until then, pursue your own convictions on this issue while leaving the judgment to God. Thank you so much for wading through this material. It shows that you are sincerely interested in spiritual matters.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thinking of Giving Up?

It's not always easy to be a Christian, is it?

Many who are baptized into Christ (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27) are filled with excitement and passion for the Lord. "This is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy..." (Matthew 13:20). But that excitement sometimes wanes as they encounter the unavoidable trials of life...and of faith. They realize that they still have to face the same temptations. Or perhaps it dawns on them that God actually expects them to follow up their rebirth with daily commitment and obedience to Christ (Rom. 12:1-2)...which may sound overwhelming. Others cave to the pressures of the world, to ridicule and criticism from old friends (1 Pet. 4:3-4). 

And so even though they have received the word with joy, "[they have] no root in [themselves], but endure only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately [they stumble]" (Matthew 13:20-21).

Have you been there before? Are you there now?

Are you spiritually frustrated? Are you tired of trying? Are you ready to throw in the towel? 

If so, consider the example of the Israelites who, following their deliverance from Egypt, had endured many trials in the wilderness and now faced a roadblock that seemed unconquerable. At the border of the "Promised Land," they were commanded to march boldly in and take it. But when it dawned on them that there were some pretty powerful nations in Canaan, they cried out, "We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we!" (Num. 13:31). Instead of pressing forward, they wanted to throw in the towel; they wanted to return to Egypt (Num. 14:3-4). They had prayed for deliverance, and had tried things God's way...but things weren't working out. This wasn't what they had expected. 

Sound familiar? Have you been there before? Are you there now?

If so, consider what Joshua and Caleb said to these people...
"The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land which flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them" (Numbers 14:7-9).
The message? Don't give up. The Lord is with you, and with Him, you can get through this. Don't be afraid, but trust the Lord. Was the task before the Israelites easy? Not at all. And I'm not trying to diminish what you may be going through right now. Life is hard! But God is stronger.

Dear reader, if you will continue to trust God and obey Him, everything WILL work out.

Thinking of giving up? Please don't!