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The Limits of Sincerity

Friday, July 30, 2021

We live in a society that celebrates the individual conscience as the highest guide to morality.  Everybody has the right to “speak their truth”, and anyone who presumes to comment on someone else’s righteousness gets slapped down with Matthew 7:1.  The theory goes that as long as we think we’re doing right, we really are doing right, and God is going to be pleased with us.

There is some truth to this.  As Paul observes in Romans 14:23, whatever is not from faith is sin.  If we feel like engaging in some innocent activity is wrong, for us to practice it truly is wrong (unless, of course, God has commanded us to practice it).  Keeping a clear conscience before God matters a great deal.

However, there are other things that matter more, as Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 reveals.  Here, Paul is examining whose judgment does and does not matter.  The first entry in the latter group is the judgment of other people.  Paul makes clear his disdain for the verdicts of any human court and even of the church in Corinth.  Who cares what anybody else thinks about us?  They have power neither to justify nor to condemn.

Paul goes on, though, to observe that self-judgment also is inadequate.  His conscience is clear, but a clear conscience isn’t enough to acquit him.  Paul knew better than anyone how deceptive a conscience could be.  His statement in Acts 23:1 that he had lived his life in good conscience before God encompassed not only the time he had spent as an apostle but also the time he spent as a bloody-handed persecutor of the church.  Saul of Tarsus was sure he was doing the right thing, but he was surely wrong.  Paul knew that he could be every bit as self-deceived right then, and the same holds true for all of us.

Instead, the only relevant judge is the Lord.  His judgment is perfect because of His perfect knowledge.  We may be able to hide our sins from others, but even the most secret sin is plain before Jesus.  So too, we can (and often do) conceal our motivations from ourselves, but Christ always knows the truth.  When the Lord returns, everyone will end up where they should go.  He will make no mistakes.

From this, Paul urges us to beware of judging prematurely.  This applies first of all to others, as some of the Corinthians were eager to judge Paul.  Because we lack perfect knowledge and have eyes that often are clouded by fear and desire, we always should entertain some doubt about our judgments of others, no matter how strongly we feel we are right.

Additionally, this applies to our judgment of ourselves.  If we can err in our judgments of others, how much more can we err in self-judgment!  Rather than living in the certainty that we are right, we must compare ourselves constantly to the standard of the word.  Above all, we must constantly seek forgiveness from God, not only for the sins we commit knowingly, but also for the sins we commit in ignorance.  As much as we enjoy vindicating ourselves, our true hope lies in God’s mercy, and it never can be anywhere else.

Respect in the Body

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

We live in an extremely individualistic society.  In the modern-day United States, everyone is indeed an island.  We define ourselves as we please and seek advantage and happiness in the same way.  Our politics reflect nothing more than the self-interested scrabbling of rival tribes.

It is tempting for us to import this individualized understanding into the church, but in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Paul calls Christians in the opposite direction.  There, he compares the church (probably best understood in a local-church sense) to a human body.  This analogy is extraordinarily powerful.  In the world, people understand themselves as the self, and everyone else as the other.  By contrast, in the body of the Lord, there is no other.  We are all part of the same organism.

As Paul points out, we have no trouble understanding the implications of this by referring to our own natural bodies.  I don’t regard my hand or foot with indifference.  I don’t dismiss my innards as unimportant simply because I can’t see the work that they do.  Instead, I am deeply appreciative of every part that God placed in my body.  Every part has its purpose, and my health depends on each functioning as He intended.

Our congregation is no different.  The divine design of our bodies is evident; 1 Corinthians 12:18 informs us that God has arranged the members of the church according to His will too.  Just as every organ of the human body has a function, every Christian has a function in the Lord’s body.  Indeed, the function of every Christian is vital and important.

The world doesn’t see this.  The world assumes that I’m most important because I get up and preach sermons on Sunday, and that everybody else is the little people who make up my audience.  Nonsense, says Paul.  Preachers are important and have a role to fill, it is true.  However, the sisters who send encouraging cards to the sick are equally important.  So are the men and women who help maintain the building.  So are the elders, who do 90 percent of their work out of the public eye.  So are the Bible class teachers.  So, indeed, is everyone who contributes to the welfare and growth of the Lord’s body in any way.

I’ve never seen my spleen.  I couldn’t pick it out of a lineup.  I only know what it does because I looked up “spleen” on Wikipedia as I was writing this article (it processes out old blood cells and helps with the function of the immune system, by the way).  However, I would not suggest for a moment that my hands and feet matter more than my spleen because I see their work and can’t see its work. 

The same is true in the church.  Every one of us matters.  Every work that we do matters, and that’s true whether others see and celebrate it or not.  We are one in the Lord.  We share our victories and our sorrows, and together we strive for the hope of a greater, eternal fellowship with Him.

Paying Preachers

Monday, July 19, 2021

Never does anyone argue harder for something they won’t actually take than Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9:3-14.  Through much of his ministry, especially his time with the church in Corinth, Paul refused financial support from the church with which he was working.  It may be that as per Romans 7:7-8, covetousness was a particular temptation for Paul, so he resolved that as much as possible, he wouldn’t accept money for his proclamation of the gospel.

However, Paul spends twelve verses carefully constructing the argument that he had the right to be supported.  This argument has several prongs.  First, he points out that it was customary for churches to provide not only for preachers, but for their families.  Second, he notes that people expect to be compensated for whatever kind of work they do, and preaching is no different. 

Third, he turns to the Law of Moses to establish that even oxen had the right to eat while they were threshing grain, and if God was concerned with oxen, how much more is He concerned with providing for human workers?  Finally, he observes that those who provide spiritual blessings to Christians have the right to expect physical blessings in return.  From all this, he concludes that preachers have the right to earn their living from the gospel.

This argument has significant implications for preachers and churches alike.  First, it warns preachers that they need to work hard in order to earn their living.  Merely filling a pulpit once or twice a week does not entitle them to anything!  Instead, if secular workers invest great effort in making widgets or closing business deals, the preacher should show even greater daily devotion to work of eternal importance.

Additionally, the preacher should be humble and appreciative about his salary.  Many brethren make significant financial sacrifices in order to contribute appropriately to the Lord’s work.  Ministers should not react to these sacrifices with arrogant entitlement.  Rather, they should express their heartfelt appreciation to those whose generosity enables them to serve.

In turn, churches ought to remember that preacher support is not benevolent relief.  The standard for a man’s compensation is not the minimum that he needs to get by, as determined by those who aren’t trying to make his family budget balance.  He is paid as an act of justice, according to what he deserves, rather than as an act of mercy.  If he is working hard at preaching and teaching, he should be rewarded accordingly.

Similarly, churches should not import a free-market mentality into their salary determinations.  They should not be asking how cheaply they can fill a pulpit.  Instead, they should measure the preacher’s value according to the value of what he is teaching them.  Is it really a good idea to try to economize in finding a man whom you want to help you inherit eternal life?

All of us know that the love of money tangles everything up in the world.  In the church, we must be careful to ensure that it doesn’t tangle us up.  However, when churches and preachers both consider financial matters in the light of God’s word, the results inevitably will be to His glory.

The Upside-Down Gospel

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Groucho Marx once observed that he wouldn’t want to belong to any social club that would have him as a member.  The point, of course, is that many people join various organizations because those organizations are exclusive.  If you belong to a group that keeps out the riff-raff, it shows that you aren’t riff-raff.

By contrast, the strategy Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 aims at the opposite effect.  He acknowledges that the gospel that he uses to attract converts is foolish, at least in worldly terms.  Any Jew or Gentile with sense is going to steer well clear of him!

As one might expect, the catch brought in with such a net is various.  Most of it isn’t very impressive:  the foolish, the weak, and the poor.  However, Paul notes that God is going to do something amazing with such unpromising raw material.  He is going to use it to reveal worldly wisdom as foolishness, worldly power as weakness, and worldly wealth as poverty.  In the end, everyone will be forced to acknowledge that for all their arrogance, they didn’t have any reason to boast in themselves either.

Not surprisingly, this radical first-century message quickly became corrupted.  Using the name of Christ as a cloak, people have been using the gospel (or a version thereof) to advance their own worldly concerns for centuries.  The magnificence of various church buildings all across the globe does little to reveal their owners as have-nots!

These problems can crop up within the Lord’s church too.  We don’t typically go in for cloth-of-gold vestments and cathedrals, but there’s a part of us that wants to have a nice church filled with only nice people.  That photogenic couple down the street with 2.4 kids and a white picket fence is perfectly welcome.  How about the guy who struggles to hold down a job?  How about the woman with a criminal record?

The church in Corinth would not have lived up to anybody’s standards for niceness.  All of the problems we read about in the church did not spring up out of nowhere.  Instead, due to the unselectivity of the screening process, all those new Christians brought enough baggage with them to fill up the hold of the Queen Mary. 

And yet, these were the called and chosen of God, the ones whom He had selected to humiliate everyone else.  What’s more, they did.  The organization to which the riff-raff belonged continues to this day.  The wealthy, wise, and powerful of Corinth?  Not so much.  Indeed, on the day of judgment, the disparity between those who sought after Christ and those who didn’t will only become more obvious.

Today, then, we need to worry a lot less about the raw material of potential converts and a lot more about the power of the gospel.  As always, it’s the people who don’t have their lives together and are well aware of the fact who are most likely to embrace global change.  They might not look very inviting in the church photo, but they are more than enough for God to use for His glory.

Paul-Style Elder Appreciation

Friday, June 25, 2021

As obnoxious as the pandemic has been, one of the silver linings to the cloud has been the way that it has brought recognition to the elders at Jackson Heights.  Normally, much of the work that the elders do remains in the background, but the crisis brought it to the foreground.  They were faced with a complex problem involving danger, uncertainty, and deeply divergent beliefs among brethren, but they navigated the challenge with wisdom and skill.  We continued to assemble nearly without interruption, nobody caught COVID in any of those assemblies, and nobody got mad and left because of the elders’ handling of the situation.  Can’t ask for better than that!

Many of the members here (myself included) have expressed their appreciation to the elders for their work.  However, if we pay attention to Paul’s admonitions in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, we see that in context, there are other ways we ought to be recognizing our leaders for their work.

Regard them very highly in love.  Christians are notorious for feasting on roast preacher on the way home from services.  Sad to say, it’s too often true that elders also find a place on the menu.  It’s very difficult to serve as an elder, but it’s very easy to criticize and second-guess the decisions that the elders make. 

However, this kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking fails to show respect either for the office or those holding it.  Elders are generally wise, compassionate men, but they always end up dealing with the hard cases and difficult choices that nobody else in the congregation can handle.  Are their conclusions always going to please every member of the church, or even necessarily going to be the best option available?  Of course not! 

Nonetheless, we still owe them deference and grace.  When the elders are down in the trenches fighting for people’s souls, the last thing they need is to start taking casualties from friendly fire!  When we disagree with the elders, rather than offering criticism, let’s start offering prayers for them instead.  Every one of them will tell you that they need it!

Be at peace.  As many difficulties as COVID created for the church, one of the elders confided to me that it was far from the most difficult problem that he had faced during his leadership tenure.  You know what gives elders more headaches and heartaches than a global pandemic?  Christians who can’t get along with each other and dump their garbage in the elders’ laps, each expecting to be vindicated.  That’s when the elders start buying Tums in bulk.

For all of us, the solution is simple, though difficult:  start acting like real Christians instead of nominal ones.  Don’t turn your marriage into a museum of every wrong your spouse has ever done you.  Don’t take every thoughtless comment that a brother makes in the worst way possible.  Don’t assume that the sister who passed you without speaking to you did it on purpose.  In short, view others in the best light possible while harshly examining your own soul for the self-righteousness, self-deception, and selfishness that all of us love to harbor.  Don’t make your spiritual problems the elders’ problems too! 

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