The other day, I read this fascinating op-ed by David Brooks. It tells the story of a member of a punk-rock band who called out the band’s lead singer for sending an unwelcome explicit photograph to a woman, leading to his banishment from the punk-rock scene. A few years later, someone discovered that she had mocked a nude photo of another girl in high school. She too got called out and shunned.
As always, I am struck by the bizarrely puritanical turn that American progressivism has taken. Sure, progressives are generally very tolerant of many things that the Scripture describes as sinful. However, underneath that façade of tolerance lies an ironbound code of conduct.
If it comes out that you’ve treated somebody in a way that progressives disapprove of, WHAM! The hammer will fall. All of your friends will reject you, and they will never again let you back into the circle of the elect. It’s exactly the kind of behavior that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about in The Scarlet Letter.
Though it’s hard for us to get our heads around the idea, progressives like this are very moral people. Even though they deny that there is any such thing as absolute right and wrong, they behave as though there is. They reject the authority of the Bible, but in their judgments of others, they appeal to the authority of progressive thought. They are more unbending in their insistence on their beliefs than the fieriest church dragon any of us have ever known.
However, for all their zeal, their ethical system has a serious, indeed fatal, flaw. It offers no hope for mercy or forgiveness. You get to feel all self-righteous when you denounce others, but when you slip up and somebody denounces you, it’s all over. You will find no place for repentance, though you seek for it with tears.
Here, we encounter one of the great things that Christ has done for us. As Paul observes in Romans 3:26, the blood of Jesus makes it possible for God to be both just and our justifier. He can simultaneously insist on the righteousness of a perfect moral code and forgive those who don’t live up to it. We see the seriousness of sin revealed in the crucifixion, but the power of the cross makes it possible for all of us to move beyond our sins. Without Christ, either God’s law is unimportant, or our transgressions must haunt us forever. With Him, we can find grace through His self-sacrifice.
In other words, Christianity offers hope. Progressive philosophy doesn’t. Progressives are either justified by works or not justified at all.
By contrast, a church is (or at least ought to be) a community of people who have confessed their inability to justify themselves through their own righteousness. We’ve all messed up, so we are able to welcome and enfold somebody else who has messed up and wants another chance. We are merciful because we have received mercy.
Without that source of mercy, progressives are left with a grim choice. Either they deny the importance of the standards that they prize, or they reject all who violate those standards. Laws or people. You pick.
In Christ, we don’t have to.
Last week, we observed that the early part of Proverbs is dominated by four characters/groups of characters. One of these is the woman of folly, the adulteress. Though she is female because the original audience of Proverbs was male, her characteristics can be applied to evil people of either sex, both married and unmarried. Here are some of the big ones:
- She preys on the naïve. The adulteress doesn’t go after the wise old father of Proverbs. Instead, in the words of Proverbs 7:7, she pursues “a young man lacking sense”. Though Christians of any age or level of spiritual attainment can be vulnerable, the young and immature are especially so. Young disciples who think they know it all had better be very, very careful in avoiding sexual sin!
- She is flattering. All of us want to be pursued. All of us want to be wanted. The adulteress provides that. As Proverbs 7:10-13 reveals, she doesn’t wait to be sought. She goes out seeking. She provides the naïve young man with validation that he is special. Of course, there is nothing special about being sought out by sin. The devil eagerly seeks all of us.
- She is religious. According to Proverbs 7:14, she has come straight from worshiping God to seek sexual immorality. She’s got that worship box checked; now she can pursue her desires. From this, we should learn that our friendships with other Christians are not 100 percent safe. Even Christians who desire to be righteous can lead each other astray through foolishness. How much more dangerous are those who desire to be wicked! When we are surrounded by brethren, we still can’t let down our guard.
- She is sensually alluring. Even thousands of years later, the come-on of Proverbs 7:16-18 is provocative and powerful. Luxurious fabrics, beautiful colors, exotic scents, and the sultry whispers of the seductress combine to overwhelm the senses of the young fool. What could be more appealing?
Today, of course, sexual temptation appears in forms that are no less alluring. Whatever our buttons may be, Satan knows where they are and how to push them. We may have such a high opinion of our spiritual maturity that we think we’re immune. We aren’t.
- She is crafty. In Proverbs 7:19-20, she tells her foolish lover-to-be that their sin together will be completely safe. The husband is long gone. He will be nowhere to be found. Nobody is going to catch us. What could possibly go wrong?
In the same way, the devil wants us to believe that our sexual sin is perfectly safe. We aren’t going to get caught. We aren’t going to get found out. There will be no consequences. All of these comforting promises are, in fact, lies.
- She is deadly. Proverbs 7:22-23 reports the sad fate of the young fool: passing pleasure, then death. Today, sexual immorality is one of the most common ways for Christians, especially young Christians, to wreck their lives. Sexually transmitted disease, unexpected pregnancy, divorce, and heartbreak all wait for the sinner.
All of this is to say nothing of the most significant consequence: spiritual death through separation from God. The practice of sexual sin ensures that God will be against us, and if He is against us, who can be for us? Seductive though the adulteress may be, the penalty for sin is more than any of us can afford.
American society has many quirks, but one of the strangest of them all is our cultural denial of old age and death. Everybody tries to keep the same youthful body type they had when they were 18. We have Rogaine and Botox to conceal the effects of our advancing years. We hide our elderly away in nursing homes where nobody has to look at them, and many funeral homes these days are in financial trouble because nobody goes to funerals anymore. Basically, Americans want to pretend that we’re all a bunch of perpetual teenagers who will continue to live on this earth forever.
However, all of us are here tonight because we know better. Our earthly lives are not limitless. Indeed, the opposite is true, and every day, each one of us moves one day closer to the end.
This is a sobering thought, but it doesn’t have to be a hopeless one. In Christ, every one of us can have the hope of a life that is limitless, though it is not here. However, if we want that hope, we have to be faithful to Him until the end. With this in mind, let’s consider the apostle Paul’s thoughts about finishing the race.
In the first of these final reflections, Paul encourages Timothy to PREACH THE WORD. Here, let’s read from 2 Timothy 4:1-5. There are two things in this text that we need to attend to, and the first has to do with our work. Not all of us are preachers, but all of us have a ministry to fulfill. All of us have some work that God has given us to do in His kingdom, and we are responsible for carrying out that work in the same way that Timothy was. We have to do what we know is right, and we have to continue doing it, regardless of what anybody else says or does.
We also must pay attention to the kind of hearer of the word that we are. As Paul observes, some Christians will have itching ears. They are more concerned with hearing things that please them than hearing sound teaching from the word of God. Indeed, they are offended by sound teaching.
At this thought, all of us will say, “Oh, no! That’s not me!” However, we need to pay attention to ourselves to make sure it isn’t us. Let me ask you this. The last time you heard a preacher say something you didn’t like, how did you react? Did you check his teaching against the Scriptures and show him his error from the Scriptures if he was in error? Or instead, did you get mad about it and complain about it to him or others? Brethren, hearing the truth and not honoring it is a sign of having itching ears. We all must make sure that we endure sound teaching, especially when we don’t like it.
After this injunction, Paul contemplates HIS DEPARTURE. Look at 2 Timothy 4:6-8. Even though Paul speaks euphemistically, it is clear that he is about to die. We might expect to die at home, or perhaps in a hospital bed someplace. Paul knew that wouldn’t be his fate. If tradition is accurate, and we have no reason to doubt it, he met his end by the sword of a Roman executioner.
However, Paul’s faith is such that he contemplates his imminent and violent death with joy. He says with confidence that he has done what God expected him to do, and because of that, he knows that he will receive the crown of righteousness.
From this, we must learn that it is possible for a Christian to die with assurance. We don’t see Paul being all wishy-washy here: “Oh, I hope I’ll go to heaven!” Instead, he knows he’s going, and he’s left his confidence on record for 2000 years.
He doesn’t have this confidence because he thinks he’s so perfect. After all, in 1 Timothy 1, he calls himself the foremost of sinners. Instead, his hope is founded on Jesus and His word. If we will set our hope in the same place, then every one of us can die with confidence too.
From here, Paul turns his attention to INCONSTANT BRETHREN. We see his description of recent events in 2 Timothy 4:9-15. Basically, he wants Timothy to come to Rome to see him because pretty much all of his other companions have gone elsewhere. Some of them are off working, one has left the Lord, and one has even started actively opposing Paul!
From this, we should learn to put our trust in the Lord rather than in other Christians. We tend to think of ourselves and others as relatively stable, but the reality is that all of us change and sometimes change dramatically. Sometimes the change is good. Mark is the same guy who left Paul in the lurch during his first missionary journey, but now he’s useful for service. At other times, though, the change is for the worse, and if somebody we depend on is headed in the wrong direction, we’re in a world of hurt!
In my experience, one of the most common reasons that Christians give for falling away is that the other people at church weren’t treating them right. I’m not going to get into what I’ve seen of the validity of those accusations, but I will say this: if the bad behavior of Christians can damage your faith in Christ, your faith was never in Christ to begin with. People change. People let us down. The Lord doesn’t and won’t.
In fact, Paul’s closing thoughts are about THE LORD’S RESCUE. Let’s wrap things up by reading 2 Timothy 4:16-18. Paul reveals that this isn’t the first time that Christians let him down. During his first trial before Caesar, everybody abandoned him for fear of their own lives! However, the Lord was with him through the whole process, start to finish. Jesus got him through it.
Paul expects this to be the invariable outcome. He says that Jesus will rescue him from every evil deed and deliver him safely to heaven. In light of what we just read a few minutes ago, this sounds like Paul has lost his mind. He’s expecting to get beheaded, and yet he says that the Lord is going to keep him safe???
The truth is that the safety that concerns Paul isn’t the safety of the body, nor should the safety of the body be the primary concern of any Christian. Ever since Genesis 3, it’s been true for all of us that if the earth continues, sooner or later we won’t.
Instead, Paul is concerned with the safety of his soul, a soul that has a much more fearsome enemy than any Roman emperor. He knows that only Jesus can keep his soul safe from the evil one, and he knows that Jesus will do it. For that, he anticipates praising Jesus forever and ever. We should too.
I’ve known and appreciated Terry Francis for a number of years now, but his recent series of posts on preachers and churches may well prove to be more valuable to the Lord’s work than anything else he’s done. In them, Terry has confronted some hard truths about elders, about churches, and, yes, about preachers.
In his most recent post, he highlighted the propensity of the latter to get trapped in a Rick Warren church-growth mindset, with a resultant focus on numbers and neglect of brethren. Ouch. Caught me right between the eyes with that one, Terry. Like him, I can look back with sorrow at times in my work when I cared more about number of baptisms per year than I did about fostering relationships with those who were already members of the congregation.
Don’t get me wrong. Saving souls is wonderful, but so too is dwelling with other Christians in unity and peace. We must do the first, but emphasizing the first at the expense of the second is a perversion of Scripture.
I think this is another one of the areas in which the church has taken its lead from wider American society. Society teaches us that the preacher is an employee and the church leadership is his employer. So too, society teaches us that if you want to evaluate the usefulness of your employee, you need data. You need metrics, even if useful metrics really don’t exist. Another one of those American illusions is that only the measurable is important.
According to this way of thinking, the preacher’s job is to keep the church in the black. As long as the attendance and contribution keep rising, all is well. If either starts declining, hmmm. It might be time to “look for a new direction”.
Preachers, at least the ones who think they can “grow the church”, like this metrical method too. It gives them job security (they think), and it gives them justification to become puffed up and proud. How dare any member get crossways with them??? They’re growing the church!
As Terry points out, this is a dangerous delusion. When it comes to the Lord’s work, no man can give the increase. Both preachers and churches must acknowledge this. The data that offer the appearance of objectivity end up distorting the truth instead, either about our preachers or about ourselves.
If we want to test the quality of a man’s work, we have to use Scriptures, not spreadsheets. Three whole books of the Bible are devoted to a discussion of the work of the evangelist, and there is much other material besides. The word reveals quite clearly what questions we ought to be asking.
Among them are these: Does a man work hard? Does he accurately handle the word of truth? Is his conduct an example for other believers? Does he preach the word, in season and out of season? Is he humble and patient in his dealings with others, especially when they’re wrong? Above all, does he love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength?
These things cannot be measured, but their value is immeasurable. A man who is and does these things, regardless of the number on the attendance board, has won the approval of God. Preachers need to rest themselves in this truth; church leaders need to honor it.
If, conversely, numbers begin to matter to us more than godliness, surely ungodliness will not be far behind.
Last week, my friend and brother Kent Berman shared some of his spiritual reflections on Facebook. He observed that the crush of worship services and church activities on Sunday, and indeed through the rest of the week, left him and his family feeling rushed and stressed out. He suggested that many churches would be better off in thinning out their calendars, leaving more time for Christians to spend on prayer, Bible study, family activity, and getting to know their neighbors.
I thought this was an intriguing idea, and I both partially agreed and partially disagreed with it. On the “agreement” side, I think it’s easy for American churches to follow the pattern of American culture, which tends toward stress and excess. To the American mind, the answer to every problem is a program. Young people leaving the church? More youth devotions! Christians with marriage problems? Let’s have a series of studies!
I don’t mean to suggest that any of these things, or other things like them, are ungodly. Individually, they may even be wise. In the aggregate, however, they result in a calendar so cluttered with worship services and small-group activities and special events that you basically have to be the preacher to show up to all of them. When many Christians are already leading lives that are overheating with stress, this may well push them to apathy rather than spiritual excellence.
It’s good, then, for church leaders to reflect long and hard before throwing a program at the problem. That extra teen devo may well be coming out of the few hours a week that teens have to spend with their families, and time with parents is (or at least ought to be) more spiritually influential than anything the devo leader might say. If parents aren’t spending significant time on spiritual interaction with their kids, well, we’ve found the real problem, haven’t we? No program can overcome that.
Fundamentally, though, the reason why Christian families are stressed out and don’t have time for spiritual growth and each other isn’t the church. It’s the culture. Three assemblies and a small-group meeting aren’t going to stress you out if you aren’t doing anything else with your week (which is why retired Christians show up to things like that and gripe about how younger Christians aren’t). However, if both husband and wife are working 50 hours a week to make the payments on a 3000-square-foot house, two late-model SUV’s, and $10K in credit-card debt, then yeah, those extra five hours will push you over the edge. In fact, you may already be over the edge because of little Johnny and Jane and their 50 million extracurricular activities that you have to take them to or be a Bad Parent.
It’s good to question whether the church is trying to do too much. It’s better to question whether in our personal lives, we are trying to do too much. In many cases, we have drunk too deeply of our society’s assumptions about prosperity and success, and they’re causing us to wreck our lives. We careen through life screaming at our loved ones, and we blame the church and its five-hours-a-week drain on our time because those materialistic assumptions are too deeply ingrained to question.
I’m all for churches being respectful of their members’ busy schedules. However, if our lives are crazy and out-of-control, we need to be honest about where the problem really lies.