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The Coming Storm

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Last February, Mark Roberts sent me a blog post by a Canadian Baptist pastor entitled “If I Were Starting a Denomination from Scratch”, which can be found here.  I found the article intriguing, but even more so were the posts to which the author linked inside it.  They explained why he was at the point of starting a new denomination in the first place.

In 2017, the pastor learned that one of the other churches in his denomination had passed a resolution allowing LGTB people to become congregational leaders.  A few years later, a pastor in another congregation came out as transgender.  The author attempted to rally opposition against such things during denominational conferences, but he lost the power struggle.  Now, he and other like-minded Canadian Baptists are leaving their conference in search of an organization that still affirms traditional views of sexuality.

As the saying goes, where the Baptists are now is where the churches of Christ will be 20 years from now.  Indeed, I don’t think it will take that long.  Some progressive voices in our brotherhood already are appealing for a more inclusive approach.  It is probably true that within 10 years, the controversy will take center stage, along with the controversies about women as church leaders, the instrument, and the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins.

It's probably also true that the more institutional entanglements a congregation has, the harder resisting this pressure will prove to be.  As the Canadian pastor found, the organizations you support financially have a way of exerting influence back on you.  The result of being unequally yoked is typically either that you cease to be yoked or that you cease to be unequal.

Congregations without these entanglements will have an easier time withstanding outside influences.  When we follow the pattern of the early church, we inherit the strengths of that pattern, and one of them is resistance to worldly coercion.  The first-century church thrived despite extreme coercive pressure in the form of persecution.  To a truly autonomous congregation, the disapproval of somebody else somewhere else doesn’t matter very much.

Instead, our trial will come from our own members.  I know several young people who left the church in part because they objected to its condemnation of the practice of homosexuality.  In years to come, as other members are emboldened by an increasingly permissive culture, they will feel free to express those objections and expect to be heard.

As much as brethren like hearing about doctrine that separates them from the world, they dislike hearing about doctrine that separates them from one another.  If LGBT issues become too sensitive to discuss, soon we will stop insisting on the Genesis 2:24 model for sexuality altogether. 

This is going to be a problem for the Lord’s church in the 21st century, and we must prepare for it by turning to the Scriptures and embracing their teaching about sexual morality.  To the worldly, sexuality is a matter of identity, but in God’s word, it is a matter of behavior.  Just as the Bible defines a thief as a thief because they have stolen something, it defines a homosexual as a homosexual because they have practiced same-sex intimacy.

The adoption of God’s definitions in these matters accomplishes two important goals.  First, it sidesteps the tedious debate about why someone experiences same-sex attraction.  In Biblical terms, the answer to the question (whatever it might be) doesn’t matter.  It’s not a sin to be tempted.  It’s only a sin to give in, so the motivations behind any temptation, including this one, are of no spiritual consequence.

Second, it gives hope to those who struggle with these desires.  “Such were some of you” in 1 Corinthians 6:11 does not mean that any of those people were released from temptation once they obeyed the gospel.  Instead, the adulterer was still tempted to cheat on his wife, the reviler was still tempted to shoot his mouth off, and so on.  They became ex-adulterers and ex-revilers because, even though they continued to feel those temptations, they ceased to be controlled by them.

The same is true for the godly ex-homosexual.  He has not changed his sexual inclinations.  He has not prayed the gay away.  Instead, he has determined to devote his body to Christ instead of sin.  If he spends the rest of his life fighting off temptation, that does not make him a spiritual failure.  It makes him a success.

To the world, this is the most awful fate imaginable because it violates the preeminent worldly value of sexual autonomy.  Here too, we must reject fleshly thinking.  Sexual satisfaction is not the Christian’s preeminent value.  Holiness is. 

Just as Christ calls the unscripturally divorced to celibacy, so too He calls to celibacy those whose know only same-sex attraction.  This is a burden, but it is not a spiritual death sentence.  There are thousands of Christians who live celibately according to His will but find joy in His service regardless.  Blessed are those who join them!

This Biblically faithful approach bears meaningful fruit in two ways.  First, it allows us to defeat accusations of bigotry.  No longer do LGBT people occupy their own special, disfavored category, in which they stand condemned because of the desires they feel.  Instead, they are held accountable to the same standard as the rest of us. 

Second, it allows us to reach out compassionately to sinners.  I shudder to think how many people have been driven away from Christ not because of their sins, but because of their temptations.  Jesus will receive such if they sincerely seek Him, and so should we. 

Some of the challenges that will face the 21st-century church remain hidden from us, but the looming problems with issues of alternative sexuality are obvious.  However, the gospel prevailed in these areas 2000 years ago, and it will prevail tomorrow too.  If we are true to it, it will not fail us.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Pressing On.

Divorce, _Apolyō_, and Matthew 19

Monday, May 17, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the centuries-long dispute over marriage, divorce, and remarriage popped up on my Facebook feed again.  As usual, somebody found a reason why they thought that the restriction of Matthew 19:9 did not apply to Christians today who are divorced for reasons other than a spouse’s adultery.

In this case, the argument centers around the Greek word apolyō, which is rendered as “divorce” in our modern translations of Matthew 19:9.  That notwithstanding, proponents of this view claim that apolyō should not be translated as “divorce”.  They note that the KJV translates it as “put away” (as indeed it is translated in other contexts in modern translations), and they assert that putting away was an action distinct from divorce.  Formal divorce involved the writing of divorce of Deuteronomy 24:1; putting away was just informally kicking your wife to the curb.  Thus, Matthew 19:9 does not apply to the formal divorces of our day, and all divorced Christians can remarry without fear.

As appealing as this argument is (Matthew 19:9 certainly is among the hard sayings of Jesus, and life would be easier for all of us if it became a dead letter), there are several problems with it.  First, I’m not aware of any evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ day made a distinction between informal putting away and formal divorce.  If you’re going to hang your whole argument on the existence of an ancient custom, you probably need to establish that the custom existed first!

Second, this is a the-translators-got-it-wrong argument, and we always should regard those with skepticism.  Admittedly, translators and Greek scholars are not perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes in their work with ancient languages.  However, if even experts in the field can err, how much more error-prone are non-experts likely to be!  If we can’t prove our argument from the Bible without making a significant change in translation, we are staking our souls on the presumption that we are right and hundreds of original-language scholars are wrong.  That may represent insight, but it more likely represents self-deception.

Third, the Bible uses apolyō to mean “divorce”, which probably is why all the scholars reached that conclusion in the first place.  In Matthew 19:8, Jesus notes, “Moses permitted you to apolyō your wives.”  What did Moses permit?  Not informally sending wives away, that’s for sure!  The only procedure in the Law for separating from one’s spouse is the formal divorce-certificate process of Deuteronomy 24:1, which the Pharisees cite in Matthew 19:7.  Thus, Jesus uses apolyō to refer to formal divorce, and we should understand Him as doing so in Matthew 19:9, which is the very next verse.

Matthew 19:9 isn’t anybody’s favorite commandment.  However, it is a restriction that God in His wisdom and holiness has bound upon all people.  As much sorrow as enforcing it can cause in this life, failure to enforce it will lead to much greater sorrow in the life to come.

God Is at Work in You!

Friday, May 07, 2021

A few months ago, Clay examined Philippians 2:12-13 in a sermon, dwelling especially on v. 13.  I’ve known for years that brethren have a bad habit of focusing on “Work out your own salvation,” to the exclusion of “It is God who is working in you.”  However, Clay’s study of the latter point brought home something I had never realized before.

God is working in every obedient Christian.  Right now.  He is working in me.  Right now.  He is working in you.  Right now.

To describe this as heartening would be an understatement!  Like many preachers, I struggle with the temptation to believe the insidious lie of Malachi 3:14.  The devil very much wants us to believe that it is useless to serve God.  In this pandemic era of social isolation, reduced or nonexistent assembling, and Christians fighting and splitting churches over dumb stuff like wearing masks, he seems to have a stronger case than normal.  Why not give up?  It won’t make any difference, right?

Wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.  Even if it is not obvious to us, the arc of history bends toward God.  He will work out His will, He will accomplish His purpose, and He will glorify Himself through His people if they will let Him do it.

The health-and-wealth preachers have a point, kind of.  God does have a plan for your life.  However, His plan is not for you to enjoy earthly happiness.  It is for you to put your nose to the grindstone and do right every single day, cheerfully, unfailingly.  If you do, He will use you to accomplish what He wants to accomplish.

We cannot know what that is, not this side of Jordan, at least, and there is no point in speculating.  If you preach the gospel and nobody listens, that does not mean you have failed.  If you fight to raise godly children but they fall away, that does not mean you have failed either.  God knew that His people wouldn’t listen to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but He sent them anyway.  Sometimes the Spirit convicts rather than converting, but that too is in accord with His purpose.

Throughout history, it always has seemed as though the cause of righteousness is failing.  It seemed so when the wicked rejected Noah, when Israel sank into corruption in the time of the judges, when Solomon forsook the Lord, when the Israelites were carried captive, when Jesus was crucified, and when Saul shattered the Jerusalem church.  God’s people always appear to be given over to death.  If it seems so in the present time, that should not surprise us.

Of course, the cause of God never actually does fail.  Repeatedly, He brings about salvation in ways that no one else could have foreseen.  He accomplishes His most spectacular works in the hours that seem darkest.

So it will be for us, if indeed we do not grow weary and lose heart.  If we work, God will be at work in us, and He will succeed in His purpose.  Go then, and work, whether preaching or teaching or supporting your family or raising your kids or watching your grandkids.  Even if nobody else notices or cares, you can be certain that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

A Note About Grace

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Preaching on grace is vital, but grace without sin is a solution in search of a problem, and grace without hell is meaningless.  If the good news of the gospel is segregated from the ugly truths of human existence, it ceases to be good.

What's the Problem with Porn?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In recent days, my daughter’s reading tastes have begun to shift from tween lit to young-adult fiction.  Though I’m not sorry to say goodbye to the likes of Dork Diaries, this shift also awakens some unease in my wife and me.  We know that YA fic has become increasingly racy in recent years, and in any event, it won’t be long before the advent of physical maturity exposes both of my children to the temptations of pornography.

To say the least, the struggle against porn has not gone well for God’s people over the past several decades.  Few indeed are the Christian men these days who haven’t had problems with porn.  Increasingly, though, smut salesmen have figured out how to peddle their wares to women too.  Take, for instance, the hot new Netflix series Bridgerton, which is perhaps best described as pornography dressed up like Jane Austen.  Men are hardly the target audience there!

In the face of this onslaught, the old standby argument of lust-is-a-sin-so-don’t-use-porn, though true, has proven inadequate.  If we want to safeguard ourselves and our children from pornography, we have to arrive at a more profound understanding than that.  Porn use isn’t merely a problem because it violates a thou-shalt-not.  It’s a problem because it subverts and corrupts God’s intent for human sexuality.

We should pay much more attention than we do to the fact that in Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul by the Holy Spirit compares the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the church.  It’s commonplace for ministers performing a wedding to describe marriage as sacred, but most Christians, even married Christians, don’t want to contemplate the sacredness of marital intimacy. 

Like all of God’s handiwork, it is nourishing, affirming, and life-giving (in many senses).  As husband and wife grow spiritually and in their relationship with each other, their delight in coming together grows too.  In the affection, understanding, and trust of the marriage bed, we expose ourselves completely, body, heart, and soul, and we rejoice to find ourselves known and loved regardless.  This is perhaps the closest we can come on earth to experiencing what it is like to be seen and known and loved by God.

Godly sexuality is one of His most beautiful creations, so we should not be surprised that Satan hates it and yearns to destroy it.  His malice is evident in unhappy marriages, in sexual immorality, and increasingly in enslavement to pornography.  Like all that Satan does, these things are counterfeits of the original, having the appearance of God’s good work without its reality.

This is most obvious with porn.  Immorality at least involves a one-flesh experience with somebody, but porn use doesn’t involve anybody.  Pleasure is present, but intimacy is always, devastatingly, absent.  Porn does not create, for it is sterile.  It does not enrich, for it is empty.  It does not unite, for it is lonely.

Pornography certainly existed 2000 years ago (witness the frescoes that have been unearthed in the brothels of Pompeii), but Paul never could have used it to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.  That relationship is fundamentally selfless.  Christ surrendered everything to His bride in death; she surrenders everything to Him in life.  So too, God intends for husbands and wives to surrender everything to one another in the intimacy of marriage (of which sexual intimacy is both a part and an analog). 

By contrast, porn is selfish.  You have no thought for anyone else; it’s entirely about you.  Thus, the porn user falls prey to the great paradox of selfishness.  There is great joy in serving others, but there is no joy in serving the self.  Instead, selfishness hollows us out like a worm in an apple.

There are no happy, contented, flourishing porn users.  No one returns repeatedly to that first picture, that first video, finding it ever more fulfilling than it was the first time.  Instead, the pleasures of porn swiftly begin to pall.  What was once captivating quickly becomes boring, and so the porn user (or, by this time, more properly “porn addict”) begins a futile, frantic search to rediscover what they have lost. 

Over time, they turn to depictions that are ever more shocking and extreme, but more and more, those things offer less and less.  They learn that the hardness of heart caused by sin is most of all a problem for the sinner.  Eventually, the greatest depravity that the Internet has to offer elicits scarcely a quiver, but still the addict continues, miserable but hoping desperately that what they find with the next swipe, the next mouse click, will help them feel something again.

Sadly, the addict becomes insensible not only to evil but also to good.  In training themselves to focus on seeming rather than substance, they lose the ability to appreciate union with their spouse.  In marriage, physical attraction is only the tip of the iceberg, but if all you care about is physical attraction, no flesh-and-blood spouse can compete with the airbrushed impossibility available online.  Living waters flow from following God’s design in marriage, but the addict returns futilely to the broken cistern of pornography, hoping to find there what it never can offer.

Such a combination of misery and enslavement always has a diabolical origin, but anyone who truly wants to be free can conquer through Christ.  The road out of porn addiction, as with any addiction, is long and difficult, but escape is possible.

It is far better for all of us, though, to learn to see the trap surrounding the bait before we take that first bite.  We need wisdom to avoid the snare that Satan has laid, and we also need courage to teach others about it.  Sex is nobody’s favorite topic in Bible class or at the dinner table, but the more we emphasize the joys of obedience and the dangers of sin, the more likely we are to evade temptation.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Pressing On.

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