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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! 

Addressing Spiritual Problems

Thursday, June 24, 2021

There are few things that are more difficult for Christians and churches than when another Christian falls into sin.  It’s very easy and straightforward for us to interact with one another when everybody is living faithfully; indeed, the fellowship we share in Christ is one of the great joys of earthly existence! 

However, one of the characteristics of sin is that it makes everyone else’s choices more difficult.  All of a sudden, that easy camaraderie is shattered.  Now, every time we see the Christian who is doing wrong, a host of questions leap into our mind.  Should we treat them normally and act like nothing’s wrong even though we know it isn’t true.  Should we say something?  If so, what?  Should we go to the other extreme and avoid them entirely because it ends up being much less awkward for everyone?

These are difficult questions, but thankfully, the Holy Spirit does not leave us without help.  There are several contexts in Scripture that probe this subject, and one of them appears in our Bible reading for this week.  Let’s turn to 2 Thessalonians 3, then, to see what the apostle Paul has to teach us about addressing spiritual problems.

In this context, I see three main lessons for us, and the first is that we must IMITATE THE APOSTLES.  Here, let’s read from 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10.  Here, it becomes obvious that the Thessalonian church has a problem.  There are several members of the congregation who are refusing to work. 

We don’t know why this is.  Many commentators have speculated that it’s because they were expecting the imminent return of Jesus, so what’s the point in working?  It’s also possible that they thought it was easier to sponge off other Christians than it was to work.  Regardless, these Christians who should be productive members of society are idle busybodies instead.

In addressing this problem, Paul first encourages the church to imitate him and his companions.  Paul did the Lord’s work during his time in Thessalonica.  He had the right not to do secular work.  However, he chose to work to show the Thessalonians how important and godly working was.  His behavior was their standard.

Today, early Christians aren’t merely our standard when it comes to working.  Their behavior is our standard when it comes to everything.  It’s vital for us to acknowledge this standard for two main reasons.  First, it shows us what’s right and what’s wrong.  We can resolve every important spiritual question by referring to what our first-century brethren did.

Second, it shows us how we must live if we want to help Christians who are walking disorderly.  They have to be able to see us obeying the commandments that we want them to obey.  I guarantee you that if we try to correct a brother or sister, and they know that we aren’t living right ourselves, the first thing out of their mouths will be an accusation of hypocrisy!  Sadly, an exchange like that is actively harmful because it gives them an excuse to reject correction even from a brother who is living right.  If we want to clean up somebody else’s act, we must clean up our own act first.

Next, we must be willing to COMMAND AND EXHORT.  Here, let’s consider 2 Thessalonians 3:11-13.  Notice how formally Paul uses his authority here.  As an apostle, in the name of Jesus Christ, he tells the busybodies to knock it off and get back to work.

Both parts of this formula are vital.  The first is the command part.  This is not something that culturally sits well with us.  On Facebook, Americans are lions, but in person, we’re a bunch of cowards.  We don’t do face-to-face confrontation well at all!

However, experience has taught me that if you want somebody to change, the only way to get them to change is to talk to them face-t0-face.  There is no substitute for looking in somebody’s eyes and telling them they need to straighten up for their soul’s sake.

When we do this, though we must be loving, we must be direct too.  Too often we’re so worried about hurting a sinner’s feelings that we beat around the bush and couch our message in so many caveats that they easily ignore it.  I’m reminded, though, of a brother I know who is a recovering drug addict.  He says that what helped him wasn’t the people who tried to coddle him and downplay his condition.  Instead, it was the people who loved him who told him straight up that he was doing evil and needed to repent.  We too need to have the moral courage to call a spade a spade and a sin a sin.

As we do this, though, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of exhortation either.  Exhortation is positive.  It’s encouraging.  It offers a road map for change and improvement.  If we don’t offer this road map, all we’re doing is beating somebody down and making them feel bad about themselves without offering them a way to feel good about themselves.  Our goal isn’t to check boxes here.  It’s to provoke change, and if we want to see a change, we should tell the sinner what it is.

Paul’s final instruction is to NOTE THE DISOBEDIENT.  Look at 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15.  Though obviously any of us can exhort a brother to do good, this is clearly an instruction given to the whole church.  It’s similar to what we read in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.  If we go to somebody, and they refuse to listen—other passages lay out the process here in much greater detail—we need to single them out for different treatment.

Interestingly, Paul’s words here are meant to help us avoid two different extremes.  The first is continuing in the same relationship with them as though nothing has changed.  The temptation here is obvious, isn’t it?  We’ve said our piece, they ignored it, so we shrug and move on in our relationship with them as though they didn’t listen to a hot stock tip we gave them. 

Of course, the gospel is much more than a hot stock tip.  In Hebrews 10, the writer tells us that Christians who fall away have trampled Jesus, regarded His blood as an unclean thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace.  It makes God very angry when His people turn their backs on Him, and for the apostate, their meeting with God on the day of judgment poses a deadly danger.  When we continue in friendly association with the sinner despite the doom that is hanging over them, we do them no favors!

At the same time, though, neither do we cut off communication with them entirely.  That would be regarding them as an enemy, and if we don’t talk to somebody anymore, it’s awfully hard to admonish them as a brother!  Instead, Paul is calling us to strike a difficult balance.  We need to continue in that relationship even though they have wrecked it, showing them by our conduct both that we love them and that we don’t approve of their actions.  This is awkward, and it’s meant to be awkward, but it’s also the last chance we have to save their souls from destruction.

Teaching Apollos

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Some of the stories that we read about in Scripture are impressive because of what we know about the laws of nature.  Others are impressive because of what we know of human nature, and in the latter category falls the enlightenment of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28.

Put yourself in Apollos’ sandals for a moment.  Here, we have a guy with a lot going for him, both in terms of ability and understanding.  He was an eloquent man, a powerful speaker, which even Paul wasn’t.  He was passionate about God and His word.  He knew that Jesus was the Christ, and he boldly proclaimed Jesus everywhere he went.

However, there was a problem.  Rather than proclaiming the saving baptism into Christ, Apollos knew only the baptism of John.  All of his powerful preaching about Jesus led to the wrong conclusion.

The disciples Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos’ flawed message, and they in turn had the courage to talk to him in private about his errors.  Then, an amazing thing happens.  Apollos listens to them!  Even though changing his message will mean open acknowledgment of his prior misunderstanding, Apollos does change.  Now, his eloquence is pointed in the right direction, and he helps the church greatly with his efforts.

Today, there are two great lessons here for us.  First, it shows us the importance of leaving space for others to be Apolloses.  Priscilla and Aquila did not, Paul-style, oppose Apollos to the face because he stood condemned.  Instead, because they knew the truth would be painful for him to hear, they went to him privately in order to spare his pride as much as possible.

God does expect us to be forthright with the truth, but He also wants us to use wisdom in figuring out the most effective way of presenting that truth.  After all, our goal in correcting error is hardly ever (or should hardly ever be, at least) to get somebody told.  Our aim is not to check off the stand-up-for-Jesus box.  It is to enlighten, to persuade, and to change minds and hearts. 

Maybe Apollos would have listened if Priscilla and Aquila had blasted him publicly.  Maybe somebody will listen to us if we present the truth to them with no consideration for their feelings.  However, our chances of success go way up when we speak truth in love.

Second, the day may well come when we find ourselves in the same place Apollos was.  We’ve been confidently proclaiming X, and some kind soul comes to us, Bible in hand, and says, “Well, actually, it’s Y instead.”

That’s not much fun!  Indeed, we will feel a strong temptation to continue clinging to X.  Few indeed are the preachers today who will, like Apollos, accept that they’ve been preaching the wrong baptism and change their tune accordingly.  Few indeed are the brethren who will easily embrace the truth after they’ve gone on record saying the opposite.  Nonetheless, only if we are willing to humble ourselves and acknowledge our misunderstandings can God be glorified in us.

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.

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