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Apostasy and Discipleship

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The other morning, I was bragging on my church family a little bit.  I like to do that as they give me opportunity!  I noted that that Sunday, I had seen Christians taking the initiative to take on good works in several different ways.  

One brother (not part of the church leadership) facilitated a brainstorming session about evangelism.  A group of women spent the afternoon teaching the middle-school to high-school girls of the congregation how to serve.  A new sister volunteered to make T-shirts for the girls.  A young sister continued to collect sleeping bags for the homeless.  Another brother (who happened to be a deacon, though he wasn’t wearing his deacon hat at the time) collected money after services for a poor man who came to the door asking for help.

It’s hard to imagine a more Ephesians 4:16 scenario than that!  Every part is doing its part.  In addition to being obviously praiseworthy and encouraging, I think all of these active Christians are doing something else.  They are protecting against false doctrine.

I’ve been arguing for years that authority problems are actually discipleship problems.  You start wanting to send money to the missionary society or the sponsoring church when you’re feeling guilty about your local congregation not evangelizing.  You start using church funds to help the world’s poor when your individual members aren’t helping them.  The discipleship failure creates the need that is filled by departing from the pattern.

However, if your congregation has a vibrant, healthy evangelism culture, the pressure to turn to human institutions becomes much less.  If your members are interested in and active in caring for the world’s poor, there is no need for unscriptural expedients to fill.  There is no problem to solve.  As they should, the disciples have got it covered.

I think we see something similar happening with the work of women.  In many progressive churches of Christ these days, there is tremendous pressure to abandon the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  Often, the people exerting this pressure make an emotional argument.  They exclaim over how awful it is that we are sidelining all these gifted and talented women by excluding them from the pulpit.

Well. . . Do the Jackson Heights women who spent the afternoon teaching seem sidelined?  How about the T-shirt maker?  How about the sleeping-bag collector?  I think anybody who thinks those women are sidelined needs to expand their definition of the playing field!

Of course, there is a scenario in which the sidelining argument becomes more potent—when members have abandoned discipleship so completely that their only meaningful activity occurs in the assembly.  According to the Scriptural pattern, men must lead in serving in the assembly.  If assembling is all a group of Christians does, then men will be the only servants.  Under those circumstances, sure, you’ve got a bunch of do-nothing women, but you’ve also got a do-nothing church.

The cure for the disease is not to abandon the pattern for the assembly.  It is to apply the pattern for Christian living to the lives of Christian women.  Titus 2:4 is sadly neglected in most congregations.  There are all sorts of good works in which any Christian may engage.  The woman who devotes herself to these things is no less a productive and useful member than the preacher or the elder.

I also have believed for a long time that the solution to any spiritual problem is “more Bible”.  More Bible study; more Bible application.  This is particularly relevant whenever a spiritual problem appears to demand apostasy as a solution.  In truth, we don’t need to reject what the word of God teaches about the use of church funds or the role of women.  Rather, we need to embrace what it teaches about the work of the disciple.  If we get that down, we will be amazed at the way that those apparent problems with the pattern will disappear.

Clothed in Christ

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Among its many other literary merits, the Bible employs a rich stock of spiritual imagery.  Some of these images are epic in scope.  Light, for instance, is important literally from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation.  However, even more modest images can add meaningfully to our understanding of God’s purpose for us.

One such image is that of being clothed.  This idea appears perhaps most prominently in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.  There, it is used to describe the process of resurrection.  Currently, we possess fragile, mortal, imperfect bodies.  In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul describes these as our earthly tents, destined to be torn down.  However, in the resurrection we will be clothed in what Paul calls a building from God, a heavenly body that is immortal and perfect.  It will be so much better that Paul expresses his longing to be clothed with it rather than his current body.

In 2 Corinthians 5:3, Paul identifies another important characteristic of this house-garment.  It will keep us from being found naked.  Throughout the Bible, and indeed in our normal lives today, nakedness is associated with shame.  If I emerged from the shower to find half the congregation standing in my bathroom contemplating me, I would be greatly ashamed! 

Thus, Paul clearly is discussing what Jesus calls “a resurrection of life” in John 5:29.  This is the resurrection of the faithful, those who may have confidence in the day of judgment.  By contrast, the ungodly can anticipate only shame and failure as the guilt of their sins is exposed.  They will be found naked.  Obviously, it is vital for us to be clothed with a heavenly form!

Fascinatingly, all of these conclusions apply to an apparently unrelated passage that also uses the clothing image.  In Galatians 3:26, Paul notes that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  The NASB even renders this as “hav[ing] clothed yourselves with Christ.” 

The same things are true of this clothing process as are true of the clothing process in 2 Corinthians 5.  First of all, it comes from God.  Colossians 2:12 reveals that baptism raises us up not because of our work, but because of our faith in the working of God.  Second, as that passage implies, baptism is a resurrection.  In the lovely language of Romans 6:4, baptism unites us with the death and burial of Christ, so that we can rise to walk in newness of life.  Finally, like the resurrection of life, baptism shields us from shame.  Once we have put on Christ in baptism, our sins are no longer visible to God.

The Scriptural lineage of resurrection begins with Christ, the firstborn from the dead (incidentally, the book of Revelation has a great deal to say about the clothing of the resurrected Christ).  It continues through baptism, a spiritual resurrection.  Then, it concludes with the resurrection of the body, which will take place at the end of all things.  If we wish to be clothed then, we clearly must clothe ourselves with Christ now.

Christians Who Work

Monday, October 12, 2020

The other day, some friends asked me if I struggled with burnout as a preacher. I replied that it made a huge difference to work with a congregation in which other Christians did things on their own initiative so that the preacher didn't have to do everything himself. Indeed, the Jackson Heights narrative yesterday was dominated by members who weren't preachers, elders, or deacons who nonetheless decided to step up, take on work, and encourage others to do the same.

Two thoughts:

- I am so thankful for all the "ordinary Christians" at JH who see an opportunity to do good and then do it. Your work glorifies God. May He bless you with strength and perseverance!

- It's become trendy to express concern for ministers during the COVID siege. If you really want to help your preacher, be a plus Christian. Don't wait for the church leadership to do something. Don't wait for the church leadership to tell you to do something. You already have a Bible. Live it out!

How Precious Does That Grace Appear!

Friday, August 28, 2020

The second verse of John Newton’s justly renowned “Amazing Grace” reads,

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

That certainly was true in my experience, and I suspect in the experience of most Christians.  When I was baptized, it was a big deal!  However, I have found that since that day 30 years ago, grace has grown more, not less, precious.

This is not because year by year, I have grown more like John Newton the unbelieving slave trader.  Indeed, I think the opposite has occurred.  Though the heart is deceptively deceitful, my self-impression is that I sin less than I did 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.  I am wiser, less contentious, less easily led astray.  For this, I can take no credit.  Instead, the glory goes to the Lord, who has begun a good work in every Christian and labors to perfect it.

However, with increased wisdom comes increased self-awareness and increased understanding of the Scriptures.  In quantitative terms, I may sin less, but I am more conscious of sin and more sorrowful over it.  Every year, I behold the awesome perfection of the Son of Man with greater clarity, and I am forced to acknowledge how short I fall of His image.  The more I grow, the more discontented I become with where I am, and the more I see how far I have yet to grow.

Along with this, though, I have grown in my appreciation for God’s grace, the only thing that can perfect me.  The unbeliever concludes that goodness is not difficult, the new Christian thinks they can get most of it done without help, but the one who has walked with Christ for decades learns to despair of their own righteousness.

All that remains is grace—grace, purchased at such hideous cost by the dying anguish of the Lamb of God.  Grace, offered in prodigal splendor by a God who must be great to show such mercy.  Grace, which transforms and enlightens the hearts of those who taste it.  Grace, which will be glorified eternally by the presence in God’s presence of all who have been redeemed by it.

What is like the grace of God?  What is as beautiful to the eyes of the believer?  What else can offer such comfort and peace and joy?  Without it, the struggles of life are hopeless. With it, victory is assured.

Grace was precious in the hour I first believed, but it is far more precious now, and with each passing day, it grows more precious still.  Every day, I see God’s goodness in His creation, and I am thankful.  Most of all, though, I am thankful for His grace.

Elections and the Sovereignty of God

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Now that the 2020 presidential election is coming to dominate the news cycle more and more, I find my thoughts turning to what the Bible teaches us about who is in control of such things.  Romans 13:1-2 tells us that God appoints all human authorities.  Daniel 2:20-21 reveals that He removes and sets up kings.  According to Proverbs 20:5, the heart of the king is a stream of water in the hands of the Lord.  In short, it clearly is God who decides who will lead any nation.

This does not mean that God will only send wise and benevolent rulers.  Exodus 9:16 reports that God raised up Pharaoh, even though he was arrogant and foolish, in order that God’s power might be displayed through his downfall.  This is true even for God’s own people.  In Jeremiah 13:13, God warns that He will fill the kings of Judah with drunkenness as part of His judgment of their nation.  Similarly, Isaiah 3:4 promises that God will send capricious children to be the rulers of His wicked people.  Though He leaves us our free will, it is nonetheless His will that is done.

We still should remember this, even though we live in a nation with a system of government that allows us the illusion of control.  “Your vote counts!” says every high-school civics class.  Well, yes, it is true that we can go to the polls and cast our ballots, but we should not imagine that we or any other human beings are dictating the outcome. 

God has not ceased to be the King of kings, nor the Lord of lords.  Our leaders, just as the leaders of every other nation, will be the leaders He chooses.  Perhaps He will be merciful and send us rulers who will help us on to prosperity and peace.  Perhaps He will be just and send us those who will bring us to ruin as part of His judgment on our national sins.  In either case, our votes cannot and will not override His purpose.  Prayer might.  Voting won’t.

Though my children are past it now, I still remember that parents whose kids are in car seats can buy steering wheels for those car seats.  Often, little Johnny is enthusiastic about his steering wheel.  He’ll spin that thing wildly, honk the horn, and be utterly convinced that he is the one who is driving the car.  However, it’s really Dad in the driver’s seat who is determining where the vehicle is headed.

We ought to remember that the same thing is true of our political participation.  If you want to study the issues, pick a candidate, and even advocate for that candidate, great!  There’s no sin in that, though there is sin in acrimonious political debate on Facebook. 

However, we must not forget whose steering wheel is connected and whose isn’t.

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