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Unintended Consequences

Thursday, October 31, 2019

As I continue to make my way down my ever-growing list of sermon requests, the next is for a sermon on authority, especially about the way that the church is authorized by the New Testament to use its money.  In summary, what we see in the Scriptures is that the first-century church spent money on a limited number of works:  evangelizing the lost, edifying the saved, and providing for needy saints.  Many other works that seem good to us, like helping the world’s poor or providing a space for Christians to eat together, do not appear in the word as works of the church.

Many brethren find this analysis unsatisfying.  On the one hand, they see all the good that the church might do, and on the other, they see the arguments against the church doing those things as legalistic quibbling.  I respect those brethren, and I get where they’re coming from, but I think there’s something they’re missing.  Once we depart from the first-century pattern, we start losing touch with the first-century church, not only in those departures, but because of the ripple effects of those departures.  We can’t change things up according to our wisdom without losing something vital in the process.  This morning, then, let’s consider authority and consequences..

The first problem that comes from adopting human institutions is that IT WILL LIMIT THE SPIRITUAL GROWTH OF BRETHREN.  By way of illustration, let’s look at the words of the Israelites in 1 Samuel 8:19-20.  The Israelites have a problem.  They are idolatrous and wicked, so God keeps sending the nations around them to conquer them and oppress them.  The Israelites could fix this problem by choosing to become righteous, but they don’t do that.  Instead, they look to their neighbors for inspiration and demand a king.  The king will fight their battles for them.  He will protect them so that they will be safe without having to become righteous!  What a great idea!

Of course, things do not work out the way the Israelites expect.  Because they do not repent, God continues to punish them, and eventually, they are carried into exile along with their king.  The worldly solution does not fix the spiritual problem.

There’s a very real sense in which, when we turn to institutions for solutions, we are doing the same thing.  We see a spiritual problem:  for instance, we think the Christians here don’t spend enough time showing hospitality to one another.  Our hearts are not open to our brethren.  Like the Israelites, we consult our neighbors for guidance, and we decide to build a fellowship hall like the churches around us.  We think that will fix things.

Sadly, though, the fellowship hall isn’t solving the right problem, just like the king wasn’t solving the right problem.  The king didn’t fix the hearts of the Israelites, and a fellowship hall won’t fix the hearts of Christians who don’t want to be hospitable.  You’ve got an apparent solution, but it isn’t the solution that Christ wants to see in us, and indeed, it will discourage us from becoming more like him.

Second, bringing in those human institutions will HINDER THE WORK OF THE CHURCH.  To summarize that work, let’s look at 1 Timothy 3:14-15.  Here, Paul tells us that the church is supposed to be the pillar and support of the truth.  That priority is reflected in the way this congregation spends its money.  Pretty much, that spending is divided into three main categories:  spending on the building, so we have a place to assemble, teach and learn; spending on local evangelists, Clay and me; and spending on foreign evangelists, men like Ronald Roark, who is baptizing people by the dozens off in Africa.  All of it is connected to the truth.

Now, though, we introduce that fellowship hall.  I doubt you could get one built for less than seven figures, so we’d have to take out a mortgage to do it and then service the debt.  You’ve got to furnish the thing, you’ve got to buy food, and you’ve got to pay for the extra insurance.  For some reason, church buildings with kitchens burn down more frequently than church buildings without!

All that takes money, and now you have to make your budget balance.  In practice, let me tell you how it’s going to go.  All the money for building upkeep will continue to be spent.  The local evangelists will continue to be supported.  However, men like Ronald Roark are going to get letters from us telling them that we can’t afford to support them anymore.  Maybe souls in Africa will continue to be saved, but we won’t have anything to do with it.  Is that the bargain that we want to strike, brethren—more convenience for us at the cost of denying others the opportunity to hear the gospel? 

In theory, I suppose we could increase our contributions so that we can afford both Ronald Roark and the fellowship hall, but if we could give that much, why aren’t we giving it now?  The elders turn aside men every month who are asking us to support them.  If we had a larger contribution, we could do that.  However we wriggle, we can’t escape the conclusion that a fellowship hall means less support of foreign evangelism.  I don’t think that’s something any of us want to accept.

Finally, human institutions tend to MAKE THE CHURCH ABOUT MONEY.  Let’s look at the Biblical pattern here in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.  Have you ever noticed, brethren, how the giving of the church is adequate to sustain the work of the church?  As long as a congregation limits itself to the Biblical pattern, unless something has gone badly wrong, the church will be able to support itself. 

However, as we observed above, all the human institutions that we might come up with, from fellowship halls to church colleges, come with a price tag.  The more you have, the pricier it gets, and the less able you are to support them on the freewill offerings of the saints.  It’s like putting a Prius engine in a semi body.  There’s just not enough power to get the job done.

That’s why churches start departing from the pattern on giving too.  I guarantee you that every church that preaches tithing does it because they have human institutions to support.  The same holds true for bake sales, yard sales, and bingo nights.  Those churches start grasping for income because they have to.

Let me tell you about where all that ends up.  Back when I was a starving young preacher trainee, Lauren did temp admin work so we could have things like health insurance.  During that time, she spent a couple of months working for the Diocese of Beaumont.  While there, she learned that the only thing, literally the only thing, you have to do to remain a Catholic in good standing is to fill out your yearly pledge card and send it in.  You don’t ever have to show up.  Give them money, and they’re good with you.

That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?  Well, guess how the Catholic Church ended up there?  It’s because of all the institutions they have to support.  We might argue, I suppose, about how far we could safely travel down that road.  For myself, I’d rather not even start down it.

Strangers and Exiles

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

For the past several years, one of the most hotly discussed political topics in our country has been the subject of immigration.  In America today, there are millions of people who, rather than being citizens of the United States, are citizens of somewhere else.  Even though according to the laws of the United States, they do not belong here, they have come here anyway, and many of them live for years or even decades in a country that is not their own.

I’m not up here to weigh in on that political debate.  Instead, I want us to remember that, even though they have been overlooked by both political parties, there is at least one other group of people living in the United States that doesn’t belong here either.  I refer, of course, to Christians.  Even if we were born and raised in the U-S-of-A, our citizenship is still in heaven, not here, and if we want to go there, we’d better put that heavenly citizenship first!

This always have been true of the people of God.  The Hebrews writer captures this idea beautifully in Hebrews 11:13-16.  Let’s spend the next few minutes unpacking this text, learning what it means for us to be strangers and exiles on the earth.

First, it means that WE SEE AND GREET THE PROMISES.  Our example here is Abraham and the patriarchs.  God gave them the land promise, the nation promise, and the seed promise, but all of them died before those promises were fulfilled.  Even though they would never see those fulfillments on earth, they looked toward them and welcomed them.

So too it must be for us.  God has made us many promises, but the greatest of them, the promise of eternal life, is something that none of us will see on earth either.  Nonetheless, if we want to walk in the footsteps of Abraham, we too must welcome this promise.  We have to look forward to it.  We have to greet it.

The only way for us to do that is through the word.  I’ve found that the older I get, the more the promise of heaven means to me.  We need to turn to the Scriptures constantly to reaffirm our trust and joy in that promise.  Every time we read about eternal life, we need to say, “That promise is about me,” and we need to remember the promise through every moment of our lives.  Let’s be sure that our eyes never turn anywhere else!

Second, if we are truly strangers and exiles, it means that WE SEEK A HOMELAND.  It’s hard not to have a homeland.  I think some of the most pathetic people on earth are refugees.  There’s been a war or a famine that has driven them from their homes, and so they’re living in a squalid refugee camp someplace else, counting the hours until they can go to where they belong.

That’s supposed to be us too.  We often sing, “This world is not my home,” but sadly, there are many Christians who are acting awfully comfortable in the refugee camp!  Our priorities tell us where our true homeland is.  Let’s think about the way we spend our money, our time, and our energy.  Would somebody who watched us for several weeks conclude that we were striving with all our might for heaven, or would they say that our hope was set on the things of earth?  Refugees are not content.  Refugees do not behave like they plan to stay indefinitely.  If that’s how we’re acting, maybe our citizenship isn’t where we think it is!

Third, if we’re strangers and exiles, WE DON’T LOOK BACK.  Here, let’s pay attention to the language of Hebrews 11:15.  The Hebrews writer doesn’t say of Abraham and the rest that they didn’t go back to the land they came from.  Instead, he says that they didn’t think of the land they came from.  This isn’t a passage about action.  This is a passage about the heart.

Let’s consider ourselves here.  We’re all here assembled in the Lord’s name.  Presumably, that means that we haven’t turned our back on Him and returned to Satan’s country, the dominion of darkness that we came out of. 

However, our hearts are another subject altogether.  Are we here because we think we have to be here, or are we here because we want to be here?  Do we hate our former sins, or do we long for them because we miss them terribly?  Are we pressing on toward Canaan, or are we looking back over our shoulders at the pleasures of Egypt?

If the latter, we need to pay attention to the writer’s warning.  He notes that if the patriarchs had wanted to go back, they would have had opportunity to go back.  So too for us.  Sometimes we sing, “I know the Lord will make a way for me,” but I am confident that if our hearts love sin, the devil will make a way for us too.  People who want to go back will get the chance.  Only if our hearts are right will we inherit the promises.

If that’s the way we live, though, the Hebrews writer says it will have two important consequences.  The first is that WE HAVE GOD FOR OUR GOD.  Specifically, the text says that God is not ashamed to be called their God.  That’s an idea that we could stand to think more about.  There is one way that we can live that will make God proud of us, that will make Him happy to claim us as His own on the day of judgment.  On the other hand, there’s another way that we might live that will make God ashamed of us.  He will look at our disgraceful actions and say, “No, I don’t know who they are.  They don’t belong to Me.” 

We might think that a Christian would have to behave pretty badly to make God ashamed of them, but in reality, the shame-causing activities are the things that we just got through studying.  If we don’t see and welcome His promises, God will be ashamed of us.  If we take earth for our home instead of seeking heaven for our home, God will be ashamed of us.  If we constantly think of the sinful life we left behind, God will be ashamed of us, and wouldn’t that be an awful thought?  Obviously, the personal consequences are terrible, but even beyond that, God has given me so much.  I don’t ever want to be somebody who makes Him feel embarrassed and ashamed!

Finally, if we are strangers and exiles on the earth, WE HAVE A CITY PREPARED FOR US.  First of all, note that this is the ultimate evidence that God approves of us.  Rest assured that nobody He is ashamed of is going to dwell in His presence for eternity!  Instead, we will be there to glorify Him, which shows His conviction that we do, in fact, glorify Him.

Second, the preparations that God and Jesus make show us that we don’t have to fear disappointment.  You know, if we spend our lives seeking the things above instead of the things on the earth, but there actually is nothing waiting for us above, that would stink!  In Paul’s words, we would be of all men most to be pitied. 

However, we don’t have to worry about that.  We have reason to believe that God is, and if God is, God is faithful.  If God is faithful, when He tells us that we have a city prepared for us, we can trust Him.  Whatever we go through here to get there, it will be worth it!

Preaching Truth to Power

Friday, October 18, 2019

A few days ago, Jared Saltz posted a link to a monologue by newscaster Chris Hayes.   In the monologue, Hayes called out his bosses at NBC for failing to support Ronan Farrow’s investigation of Harvey Weinstein because Weinstein was powerful and had many friends.   It’s easy to “take a stand” when doing so will cost you nothing.   It’s hard to do so when you know there’s a price tag attached.

This is every bit as much an issue for preachers as it is for journalists.   There is a temptation to rail on from the pulpit about the abuses of X denomination, or about Y sin that no one in attendance practices.   However, when it comes to the spiritual problems that you know the brethren actually have, you’re silent about those.   

Preaching like that is extremely popular.   All of us love to hear about the things we’re doing right and somebody else is doing wrong.   However, it probably makes the preacher in question a false prophet, even if he’s only lying by omission.

By contrast, addressing problems in the congregation have is a fraught exercise.  People who believe that you are "preaching at them", whether correctly or not, are likely to get mad at you about it.  Indeed, if they are powerful enough, you might find yourself looking for someplace else to preach! The example of David in 2 Samuel 12 is easy for Christians to praise but difficult to emulate.  It's much easier for brethren to walk the path of Ahab in 1 Kings 18, and preachers know it.

It might seem, then, like the right answer for preachers is to burn their bridges every three years and move on, but I don't think that's necessarily correct either.  Yes, preachers are called to proclaim, but we also are called to persuade.  Preachers who focus on proclamation at the expense of persuasion are speaking truth, but they may well be missing out on speaking truth in love.  That doesn't glorify God either, and it is likely to intensify the preacher's usual struggles with cynicism and self-righteousness.

Perhaps we can define the work of the preacher with the congregation as earning the right to speak hard truths.  As much as I grind my teeth at the progressive rhetoric of "safe spaces", it is nonetheless true that people won't listen unless they feel safe.  They have to believe that you are convinced of their value before they will hear a critique of their behavior from you.  You aren't the one who gets to decide whether you are speaking the truth in love.  They are.

Among the preachers whom I most admire are those who have worked for decades with the same congregation.  Such longevity is nearly always proof of getting the truth-in-love balance right.  A church deprived of the truth for a long time will dissolve or apostatize.   A church exposed to loveless truth will run off the proclaimer.  It’s not surprising, then, that these long-time preachers nearly always end up serving as elders too, revealing a knack for navigating relationships both in their families and in the congregation.

Sometimes preachers are faced with Pilate’s-hall moments, in which either they boldly proclaim the truth or they do not, and they suffer the consequences either way.  May such men choose to honor Christ, whatever the cost!  May we also be wise, though, in preparing the way for the gospel, in serving our brethren with selfless love.  That way, when the time comes for us to preach hard truths, they will accept them rather than rejecting both them and us.

The First-Century Gifts

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Several months ago, I preached on the passing of the miraculous spiritual gifts.  After services, Jeff Nicholson and I had an interesting conversation about the gift of prophecy, and he suggested that it might be worth devoting a sermon to explaining what those miraculous gifts were. 

After rolling that around in my mind for a while, I decided that Jeff was right.  Often, we don’t study this because we don’t have any of those gifts today, but I think that’s a mistake.  Let me explain.  Usually, when we encounter somebody who believes the miraculous gifts still continue, we address their confusion by going to 1 Corinthians 13 and explaining that the gifts faded with the completion of the written word.

However, I think there’s yet another way to handle the issue.  Typically, these people have had experiences that they say are miraculous. However, when we compare their experiences to the Scriptural record, their “miracles” invariably don’t measure up.  In order to make that argument, though, we have to know what the gifts actually did.  With this in mind, let’s spend our evening considering the first-century gifts.

The first gift that I want to look at is the gift of TONGUES.  We see the apostles employing this gift in Acts 2:5-6.  It’s clear here that the apostles aren’t speaking in a prayer language or in the language of angels.  They are speaking in the foreign languages that these visitors to Jerusalem knew.  That’s what the gift of tongues did:  it gave people the ability to speak foreign languages they had not learned.  This gives us a test that we can use with those who claim to have the gift of tongues today.  People who can’t miraculously speak in foreign languages don’t have the gift of tongues.

Next, we logically come to the gift of INTERPRETATION OF TONGUES.  I think the text that gives us the best insight into this one is 1 Corinthians 14:10-13.  Notice first of all that Paul is talking about “languages in the world”.  It’s clear that he connects the gift of tongues to speaking foreign languages.  However, his words also highlight a weakness of the gift of tongues.  I can be jabbering away at y’all all day long in Russian, but unless somebody can speak or understand Russian, my miraculous gift of tongues is pointless.  That’s where the gift of interpretation came in.  It allowed either the speaker or an audience member to miraculously understand and translate foreign languages.

Third, let’s consider PROPHECY.  This is a unique gift because it appears to have not one but two main manifestations.  We see the first in Acts 11:27-28.  Here, Agabus uses his gift of prophecy to predict the future.  Let’s notice three things about this prediction.  First, it was specific.  Second, it was falsifiable.  Third, it was fulfilled.  These specific, falsifiable, and fulfilled predictions are characteristic of the true gift of prophecy.  By contrast, the so-called prophets today make predictions that are either a) not fulfilled (anybody remember Harold Camping predicting the end of the world in 2011?) or b) so vague that they can’t be falsified.  Anybody can predict that hard times are coming, but hard times are always coming!  It’s meaningless.

Second, in addition to foretelling the future, the gift of prophecy was used to forth-tell the word of God.  Look at how Peter describes the prophetic work of Jesus in Acts 3:22-23.  Clearly, God’s people are supposed to obey God’s prophets.  Indeed, it is their ability to predict the future that tells us when we should listen!  On the other hand, any prophet who can’t correctly predict the future can safely be ignored.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the gift of HEALING.  There are many Scriptures we could examine here, but let’s look at Acts 3:7-8, the story of Peter healing the lame man.  Once again, pay attention to the characteristics of this healing.  First, it’s a healing of a man everybody knows is sick.  The lame man isn’t a ringer.  Second, his ailment is obvious.  It’s not like one of his legs is longer than the other.  The dude can’t walk!  Third, Peter heals him instantaneously.  Thus, the gift of healing was the instantaneous cure of a publicly known, obvious illness.  That’s a test that every healing in the Bible can pass, but no modern day “healing” will.

The gift of MIRACLES was similar.  For our example here, consider what Paul does in Acts 13:8-12.  Once again, take note of the spectacular nature of the use of this gift.  We start off with Elymas the sorcerer, a man who can see perfectly.  Everybody knows he can see.  Then, Paul curses him, and he loses his sight.  This too is obvious to everyone.  It’s not like Elymas would fake being blind in order to make Paul look good!  A miracle, then, is an obvious working of God in the world with no natural explanation.  Throughout the New Testament, we see the enemies of Jesus and the gospel being unable to explain away miracles.  They might say that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, but they couldn’t deny that he was casting out demons.  Any true miracle today would be equally undeniable.

Let’s wrap things up by looking at a couple of gifts people don’t usually claim to have today.  The first is the gift of KNOWLEDGE.  I think the best explanation for this gift comes in John 14:25-26.  Note that we’ve seen part of this before.  The Holy Spirit teaching the apostles all things was the gift of prophecy.  On the other hand, the Spirit bringing to their remembrance all that Jesus taught, I think that’s the gift of knowledge.  It was supernatural total recall of spiritual teaching, especially the teaching of the Lord.

Finally, we come to the gift of WISDOM.  Normally, when we think of Biblical wisdom, we think of the wisdom of Solomon, but that’s not really how the gift manifested in the New Testament.  For instance, look at Luke 21:14-15.  Basically, the gift of wisdom was the gift of winning debates.  Jesus was able to make His opponents look like idiots, even though they weren’t, because He had the spirit of wisdom.  Similarly, in Acts 6, the people who want to argue with Stephen aren’t able to withstand the spirit and wisdom with which he is speaking.  People with the gift of wisdom never lost an argument!

When Words Become Gossip

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

When I returned to my store of sermon requests last week in preparation for this lesson, I saw that the next topic on the list was for a sermon on gossip.  As they asked, I will keep the requester anonymous! 

All of us must acknowledge, though, that whether or not we requested a sermon on gossip, we can benefit from a sermon on gossip.  In fact, I think that gossip is one of the particular temptations to which disciples are exposed.  After all, we are more interested in others than sinners are because Jesus calls us to be. 

However, just like any other good thing, Satan can turn our interest in others into evil.  The book of Proverbs is full of warnings about the dangers of whispering and gossip.  At the same time, though, we know that not all discussions of others constitute gossip.  For instance, when the elders meet to discuss the welfare of the flock, that’s the furthest thing in the world from gossip! 

How, then, can we tell the difference?  How can we know when neutral or even praiseworthy speech about others turns into ungodly speech?  Let’s spend this morning, then, considering when words become gossip.

The first thing that causes words to become gossip is WHEN THEY ARE UNTRUE.  For instance, consider the warning of Ephesians 4:31.  Among the things that we are to put away is slander, which is telling or repeating a lie about someone, and malice, which is an insidious desire to hurt someone that often leads to slander. 

Hopefully, it isn’t news to anybody here that it’s wrong to lie about somebody else in order to cause them harm in some way.  However, I think it’s easier for all of us to end up on the wrong side of that line than we think. 

What if somebody has done us wrong—really wrong!—and we’ve got all this rage and indignation built up inside of us?  We’re talking to one of our good friends about how no-good and low-down this person is.  We’re telling the story of all the horrible things they’ve done to us, and this. . . idea springs into our heads.  We could tell our friend that this person has done this other horrible thing too!  Well, no, it’s not true, exactly, but they’d have done it if they’d have thought of it!  And so we slip it in to complete the narrative.

Brethren, I’m well aware that some of us are storytellers and some of us aren’t, but a good story is no excuse to slander somebody else.  No matter how enjoyable that might feel in the moment, the price is more than we want to pay.

Second, words become gossip WHEN THEY ARE CARELESS.  One of the most sobering warnings in Scripture appears in Matthew 12:36-37.  Here, Jesus tells us that we endanger our souls not only when we lie, but when we speak idly and carelessly.

There are several ways in which speech can be careless.  First of all, we can be careless with the truth.  We heard this juicy tidbit about a brother, and it’s so good that we pass it on without much concern for whether it’s true or not.  Maybe we make up the juicy tidbit ourselves and start spreading it around because we think it’s plausible. 

Note, by the way, that carelessness with the truth is a serious problem when it comes to stories and memes on the Internet.  When we hit “Share” on some piece of political clickbait without checking it out carefully, we are sinning according to the terms of Matthew 12:36.  Wouldn’t it be the dumbest thing in the world if we ended up in hell because of the garbage we shared on Facebook?

Similarly, we can be careless about the consequences of our words.  Just because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be said.  The truth carelessly spread can cause strife in friendships, in marriages, and in churches.  We need to think about the strife-causing potential of our words, and if we see possible problems, we need to keep those lips zipped.

Third, words become gossip WHEN THEY PROCEED FROM EVIL SUSPICIONS.  Once again, let’s look at a laundry-list verse to extract this idea, 1 Timothy 6:4.  Contextually, Paul is talking about evil suspicions stirred up by doctrinal controversy, but whatever their origin, evil suspicions are problematic, and they lead to speech that is problematic.

We know that our hearts are in the grip of evil suspicions when we find ourselves imputing bad motives to others when it is not justified by the evidence.  We especially have to be careful about this when we are talking about others whom we dislike. 

There are times when it is necessary to talk about the bad behavior of others.  I’ve watched elders all across the country do this.  However, when we do, we have to be careful to make sure that there is a factual basis for every word that crosses our lips. 

For instance, let’s say that Freddy is a Christian who has been struggling with his attendance.  One Sunday, Freddy is absent.  We notice, and we say to our friend, “I bet Freddy saw that it was a nice day outside and went fishing instead.”  Let me point out that we don’t know that.  If we had called Freddy, asked him where he was, and he said, “Fishing,” that would be one thing, but we didn’t.  In the absence of evidence, we’re letting our evil suspicions do the talking, and that’s wrong.  By contrast, the godly thing to do is to assume the best about others and their motives until we find out the truth.

Finally, words become gossip WHEN THEY DO NOT GIVE GRACE.  Here, consider Ephesians 4:29.  In this text, Paul is drawing a contrast between two kinds of talk:  corrupting talk, which eats away at the hearts of those who hear it, and edifying talk, which builds up those who hear it.  Edifying talk gives grace.

Some people say that whenever we are talking about a third party who isn’t present, that’s gossip.  I don’t think that’s true, and this verse is one of the reasons why.  It is totally possible for such a conversation to edify and give grace.  If Bradley comes into my office, and we start talking about a brother with whom I ate lunch the other day, if I am motivated by love and by the desire to help Bradley do his job better, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.  I’m bringing the church closer together.  I’m giving grace.

On the other hand, let’s say that my motives are different.  Let’s say that I think somebody is a bad guy, and I want to make sure that Bradley thinks he’s a bad guy too.  I don’t want to help him.  I want to make sure that Bradley and I are up here and he’s down there.  Even if I am scrupulously careful to make sure that everything I say is true, that’s still gossip.  I’m trying to corrupt my audience, not help him.

In this, brethren, we have to pay close attention to our hearts.  I can imagine two Christians having a conversation about some brother who has fallen in sin, saying all the pious things about praying for him and helping him, yet each coming away with secret glee that they’re righteous and he isn’t.  Even if we aren’t lying about somebody else, we have to make sure that we aren’t lying to ourselves about our motives too.

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