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Freedom and the Flesh

Monday, April 12, 2021

In 1 and 2 Corinthians, we encounter a young church full of new converts.  Some of these people have come out of gross immorality to draw near to God through Christ.  However, the Corinthians suffered from a predictable problem.  Rather than abandoning their former worldly thinking, they imported it into the church, so that even the Lord’s Supper became an opportunity for them to exalt themselves and shame others.

In Galatians 5:13-15, Paul condemns this worldly worldview.  He points out that in Christ, we have freedom.  We are freed from our sins; we are freed from the need to justify ourselves before God through works of merit.  However, he warns the Galatians that it is all too easy to use our freedom in Christ to express our fleshly desires.  Rather than loving and serving one another, we can find ourselves attacking and devouring one another.

Sad to say, this fleshly attitude is all too evident among God’s people 2000 years later, even among those who have been Christians for much longer than the Corinthians had.  Most of us have probably seen brethren who obeyed the gospel decades ago acting as though they had never come out of the world in the first place.  Contentiousness, self-will, and pride are fully as evident in them as they are in someone who never has set foot inside a church building.

If we are honest, each one of us will admit that this is a struggle for us.  All of us were toddlers once, and inside us all, that inner toddler remains.  We want what we want, we want it now, and if we don’t get what we want, we are inclined to pitch a fit. 

Sometimes, brethren cloak their personal outrage in doctrinal self-righteousness.  They will seize upon an obscure issue and insist that everyone follow their obscure position, or else.  Really, though, whether they realize it or not, the true problem is not their quirky interpretation of the Scriptures.  It is that they aren’t being honored in the way that they feel they deserve.

This is not how we have learned Christ.  As Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:22, all things belong to us.  Our exaltation in Christ is so extraordinary that any of our attempts to exalt ourselves cannot change our position in any meaningful way.  It would be like me trying to make a meaningful contribution to the gold in Ft. Knox by tossing my wedding ring on the pile!

All things belong to us, so the affronts that matter so much to the world should be insignificant to us.  Brother X is a jerk.  Who cares?  We have Christ.  Sister Y insisted on her way.  Who cares?  We have Christ.  They are not rivals for the esteem that rightfully should be ours.  They are fellow heirs in Christ who offer us opportunities for service and love.  We must not bite and devour one another, but more importantly, we don’t need to bite and devour one another.  We already have been filled with Him.

Freedom in Christ

Thursday, April 08, 2021

I few days ago, I posted a bulletin article about Galatians 3:23-25 and Paul’s proclamation that we are no longer under the Law of Moses.  In particular, I applied this to the use of instrumental music in worship and explained that the use of the instrument in Psalms and elsewhere is not relevant to our practice today.

Not surprisingly, this generated a fair amount of spirited, though civil, discussion.  I replied to most commenters inthread, but there was one that I thought deserved a longer response.  This commenter said, “Seems like strange logic to say ‘you are no longer under a guardian’, therefore you have these new restrictions (no instrumental music), even though those restrictions were never actually given. Being no longer under a guardian implies more freedom, not more restrictions.”  I asked for and got permission from him to address his comment separately.

I think this comment gets to the heart of what it means to follow Christ instead of following Moses.  Because we are justified by faith instead of justified by works, our motives for obedience are different.

Let’s start with the justification-by-works side first.  Justification by works is necessarily minimum-seeking.  If you agree to work for someone for eight hours to receive a given amount of money, you go home when your shift is over, and they pay you no more than they had promised.  Everybody involved meets the standard (if they are just people), but no one exceeds it.  To work longer or pay more would be an act of mercy, not justice.

Justification by faith is different.  In the spiritual realm, none of us want what is due us!  We don’t want justice.  We want mercy, and we receive it through faith in Christ.  He justified us when it was impossible for us to justify ourselves.

At this point, we encounter the rhetorical question of Romans 6:13.  Should we sin because we are not under the Law but under grace?  In other words, if my works are not contributing to my justification in any way, why continue to work?  In the remainder of the chapter, Paul replies that simply because we have been freed from the Law does not mean that we can do whatever we want.  Rather, we have become slaves to righteousness.

However, the mode of slavery is different.  We are not like the “wage slave” of the system of works.  We don’t work because we want to earn our wages.  Instead, we work because of the gift that has been given us.  As per 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, the love of Christ compels us.  He died for me, so I must live for Him.

This kind of slavery is far more profound than the other.  When it comes to Jesus, I don’t ask, “How long must I work?”  I ask, “How much can I give?”  Nothing is too much for the One who rescued me from hell by a single transcendent act of mercy!  Indeed, nothing is enough.

This transforms the way I read the Bible too.  I don’t turn to the Scriptures to figure out what I can get away with.  I turn to them to figure out everything that I can possibly do to please my Lord. 

This makes the instrumental-music question easy.  I know for certain that singing praises to Jesus pleases and honors Him.  I don’t know that adding the instrument to my worship pleases and honors Him.  There’s no evidence that it does. 

At this point, I could lawyer and weasel and say, “Well, Jesus never told me not to!”  That’s true, but it’s irrelevant.  In real life, I’m not bringing in the instrument for Him (no evidence, remember?).  I’m bringing it in for me.  I’m taking the life that He bought and paid for, and I’m trying to reclaim some of that life for myself. 

That’s not who I am.  That person died in the waters of baptism, and I’m determined to make sure he stays dead!

So it is that in Christ, we are freed from the Law and the need to justify ourselves, yet we also are enslaved in the most complete bondage that a human being can experience.  Every action, every word, and even every thought must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ.  As part of that obedience, until somebody can show me that instrumental worship is about serving Jesus instead of serving the self, I’m not interested.

Psalm 22A

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

My God, my God, I groan to You,
So why have You forsaken me?
I cry by day; You do not hear,
By night, but suffer woefully.
Yet You are throned upon our praise;
Our fathers put their trust in You;
To You they cried and were redeemed;
They trusted, and they found You true.

I am a worm and not a man,
Despised by all the people here;
“Now let the Lord deliver him,”
They shake their heads at me and sneer.
Yet You have brought me from the womb,
O Lord, my only hope on earth;
Upon Your mercy I am cast,
And You have been my God from birth.

Do not be far; distress is near,
And none to help me can be found;
Like lions, how they roar at me!
Like savage bulls, they ring me round.
Now all my bones are out of joint,
My courage and my strength have fled,
My tongue is mute within my mouth,
And in the dust You lay me dead.

For dogs have pierced my hands and feet;
They look with scorn upon my woes;
They claim my garments as their prize,
And cast the lot to win my clothes.
But You, O God, be not far off;
Make haste to keep me from the sword;
From dogs and lions, rescue me;
From oxen, save my life, O Lord!

Suggested tune:  "Lamb of God"

The Meaning of "One in Christ"

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

In our Bible reading for this week, we’re going to encounter Galatians 3:28.  It contains one of the most stirring calls to spiritual unity in the entire Bible.  Here, Paul tells us that because we have been clothed with Christ in baptism, there are no longer Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female in Him. 

We probably should understand this as a reaction to the ancient Pharisee prayer, recorded in the Talmud, in which the pray-er thanks God for not making him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.  Paul is pointing out that the things on which the Pharisee based his self-worth are no longer meaningful under the new covenant.

However, in recent years, this passage has become a rallying cry for those who wish to erase the Biblical distinctions in role between men and women.  If indeed there is no male nor female in Jesus, the argument goes, then anything that a man can do in worship, a woman also can do.

This is what people take from Paul’s words here, but is that really the result that Paul intended?  For that matter, does this argument represent the fulfillment of the spirit of Christianity, or is something else going on here?  Let’s consider these issues as we look at the meaning of being one in Christ.

I will freely acknowledge that especially in our time, the no-more-gender-roles argument has considerable appeal.  However, I see two significant problems with it.  The first is that it takes a statement that Paul was making about value and makes it about role instead. 

Let me explain.  First of all, it’s obvious that in Galatians 3:28, Paul is speaking metaphorically .  It is not literally true that once you are baptized, you cease to have cultural background, legal status, and sex characteristics.  Instead, Paul is saying that once you are baptized, other Christians regard you differently in some way.

There are two possibilities here.  The first has to do with value.  As the Pharisee’s prayer shows, 2000 years ago, some people definitely were valued less than others.  To the Pharisee, the Greek slave woman was at the bottom of the heap!  What Paul could be saying, then, is that in Christ, there is no difference in worth between the Pharisee and the slave woman.

Alternatively, what Paul could be saying is that in Christ, the difference in role between these various groups is erased.  Even though the woman is still a woman, for instance, now she is free to act like a man, and no one should stop her from doing so.

The best way to decide between these two alternatives is to see which one better lines up with the rest of Paul’s writing.  Does Paul seem to think that in Christ, there are no longer different expectations in behavior for these groups, that they all should act the same?  Or, instead, do these different groups continue to behave differently, even though in Christ they have the same value?

To test these competing claims, let’s look at only one book:  1 Corinthians.  In 1 Corinthians, does Paul write as though he thinks there is no longer a difference in role and behavior between the various Galatians 3:28 groups?

The answer here is obvious.  In 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, Paul speaks specifically to slaves, telling them that their salvation has not changed their earthly condition.  Unless they can legally become free, they are to remain as slaves.  In 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul reveals that when he was around observant Jews, he himself behaved like a Jew, respecting their cultural beliefs.  Finally, in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul distinguishes between the way that Corinthian men were to pray and Corinthian women were to pray. 

This is just one Pauline epistle, and it’s not even all the relevant examples in the epistle.  It’s clear that Paul believed that all the role differences between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female were not erased.  Each of these groups still should behave in the way that was appropriate for them.  We must conclude that Galatians 3:28 is about value, not role.

Second, and more insidiously, when we decide that we are going to treat these categories the same, we are IMPORTING WORLDLY VALUES into the church.  By this, I don’t merely mean that we are following a worldly pattern.  Instead, we are adopting a worldly system of values.

This problem is most obvious when it comes to cultural distinction.  I’m reminded of a story a brother told me once that when Russia was opened to the gospel in the 1990s, some American Christians who went there to preach also attempted to teach the Russians Stamps-Baxter hymns to use in worship. 

They did this even though the Russian Orthodox Church has a hauntingly beautiful tradition of a-cappella singing in worship that is much older than our own.  If you’re not familiar with it, look up Russian Orthodox chant on YouTube sometime.  However, these American brethren thought that it wasn’t enough for the Russians to worship God in a lawful way that was culturally appropriate for them.  They had to worship God in a way that was culturally appropriate for Americans.

This kind of cultural bulldozing is exactly the opposite of what Paul is trying to encourage.  His point is emphatically not “There is no American nor Russian in Christ so Russians should worship like Americans!”  Instead, every culture, every race can find its own equally valuable voice in worship.  Those are distinctions that we should preserve.

The same holds true for men and women.  Lurking underneath the argument that women should assume male roles in worship is the conviction that male roles are somehow better, that the woman who serves God privately is less important than the man who serves God conspicuously.  Thus, the only way for her to become valuable and important is for her to start doing public things.  If that’s not true, if the woman is doing equally valuable and important things in the kingdom right now, then why the big push for change?

The problem is, though, that if we don’t place equal value and importance on the traditional service of women, we are no better than the American preachers who didn’t place equal value on the traditional worship of Russians.  It’s nothing but worldliness.  As Jesus points out in Luke 22:25-27, greatness in the kingdom does not come from authority and prominence.  It comes from humility in service. 

Because of our different gifts and different positions, not all of us can serve the same way.  However, every one of us can imitate, and indeed must imitate, the servant’s heart of Jesus.  Here at Jackson Heights, that servant’s heart is evident in so many of our women.  In no way are the female members here inferior in their gifts, their skills, or their education to the men here, and they wholeheartedly use all of those things to build up the church.

The sisters here are active in teaching other women, girls, and children.  They organize and prep for classes, in addition to carrying out a host of other vital administrative functions.  They prepare the Lord’s Supper.  They clean the church building.  They visit the sick and the shut-ins.  They call, text, and send cards to brethren they’re concerned about.  They invite outsiders to our assemblies.  They fix meals for brethren who are dealing with the loss of a loved one or otherwise going through a rough patch.  All that’s just off the top of my head; there’s probably a bunch of stuff that I’m forgetting!

In order for this congregation to fall apart, all those women wouldn’t have to leave.  They would just have to stop doing what they’re doing.  As Paul says in his discussion of the body of the local church in 1 Corinthians 12, all of us have been given a necessary role in the body by God, and the health of the whole depends on each part doing its part. The women of this congregation don’t have to take on male roles to become valuable, important, and God-pleasing.  They are valuable, important, and God-pleasing already.

The Guardian of the Law

Monday, April 05, 2021

When visitors from denominational backgrounds come to our assemblies, they are often puzzled by our tradition of a-cappella singing.  “Why don’t they use instruments?” they wonder.  If we explain that the Scriptures do not authorize the use of instruments in worship, they may be Biblically savvy enough to point to passages, usually from the Psalms, that contain commands to worship God with instrumental music.  Psalm 150:3-5 is the most prominent such passage, but there are others.

However, there’s a significant problem with assuming that what God bound on the ancient Jews is still binding on us today.  They served Him under a different law than we do.  They were bound by covenant to obey the Law of Moses, but we follow the law of Christ.

There are a number of passages in Scripture that make this point, but perhaps the clearest of them all is Galatians 3:24-25.  In this text, Paul compares the Law to a guardian.  Other translations here will say “schoolmaster” or “tutor”.  Colloquially, the English word that best captures the sense of the Greek original (paidagōgos) may be “crossing guard”—somebody whose job it is to make sure that a student arrives safely at school.

However, just as the guardian’s authority terminated when the student reached his destination, Paul reveals that the authority of the Law has ceased now that faith in Christ has arrived.  He tells the Galatians, “We are no longer under a guardian.” 

In context, Paul is particularly concerned with the Mosaic rite of circumcision, but his words have a much broader reach than that.  Some denominational commentators will attempt to divide the Law into two parts:  the ceremonial Law, which was nailed to the cross, and the moral Law, which continues.  This distinction was originally proposed by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas about 1000 years ago. 

Aside from the difficulty of applying this scheme (Is tithing part of the ceremonial Law or the moral Law?), I’ve never been able to find any Scriptural justification for it.  Rather, we should take Paul at his word.  Nothing in the Law of Moses continues in effect.

This does not mean that the Old Testament is valueless.  It gives us precious insight into the prophecies concerning Jesus, the nature of God, and the application of moral precepts that are repeated in the ordinances that govern us.  However, for a law to fall into that category, it must have been repeated by Jesus or His apostles and prophets as a rule for Christians to follow.

Thus, when it comes to instruments of music in Psalm 150, we must acknowledge that even though the psalm contains a stirring call to worship, those verses have nothing to do with us.  The only instrument authorized by the New Testament, according to Ephesians 5:19, is the instrument that we all must play when we worship—the heart.

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