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The Fiery Ordeal

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Of all of the multitude of false doctrines that have arisen since the resurrection, one of the most bizarre is the prosperity gospel.  Though it has found a home in the hearts of Mammon-worshipers throughout our country and indeed across the world, the gospel of health and wealth bears little resemblance to the gospel of Christ.  Indeed, rather than promising disciples of Jesus prosperity and earthly happiness, the Scriptures promise them the opposite.

One such promise appears in 1 Peter 4:12-13.  There, Peter warns his readers that a fiery ordeal is coming upon them to test them, so that they can share in the sufferings of Christ.  Contextually, this particular fiery ordeal is persecution.  Hostility toward their faith was a major problem for Christians in the first century, and it may prove to be similarly significant for brethren in the near future.

Whether this happens or not, though, some fiery ordeal in a larger sense is in store for all of us.  Christ suffered because He lived in a fallen world irremediably marred by sin, and because we live in the same world, we can expect a similar experience somewhere along the way.  God offers us compassion and healing in our trials, but He never tells us that He is going to make our lives as comfortable as possible, and we need to pay attention both to what He has promised and to what He hasn’t.

Sometimes the fiery ordeal will be persecution.  At others, it will be the death of a loved one, the failure of a cherished business, betrayal by a spouse, or hatefulness from brethren.  The list of possibilities here is as endless as the variations in human misery.

When this trial comes, it will shake us to our core.  It will force us to re-evaluate everything we had believed was true.  Depending on how we react to it, it can lift us to heights of awe-inspiring nobility or plunge us to depths of shame and spiritual failure. 

Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:16 that when we suffer, we must suffer as a Christian.  This refers in part to suffering because we are Christians, as opposed to suffering because we are evildoers.  However, I believe that it also means that we ought to suffer in a way befitting Christians instead of one befitting evildoers.

In particular, Peter says that we ought to glorify God in our suffering.  There are few better examples of this than Job.  Job famously says in Job 1:21, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  In this, his determination to glorify God is obvious.

Less obviously, the same is true through the rest of the book.  Job’s words often make us uncomfortable as he accuses God of being unfair, expresses his anger with Him, and demands an explanation.  However, Job never curses God, turns away from Him, or sins with his lips.  Indeed, in Job 42:7, God commends Job for having spoken rightly about Him.  Even in his anger and his anguish, Job did not cease to honor God.

In our suffering, we can be honest with God.  He’s big enough to take it, and He knows what we’re thinking anyway!  What we must not do, though, is reject Him because of our suffering.  When we struggle in our faith but keep struggling onward, the ultimate result will be that God will be glorified, and that we will be glorified along with Him. 

Lawful Neutral Christianity

Friday, March 12, 2021

DISCLAIMER:  I am a huge dork.  Do not feel the need to inform me of this because of this post.  I already know.

The other day, I found myself explaining the intricacies of Dungeons & Dragons to a couple of Christians who had never played before.  Among other things, we discussed D&D’s alignment system.  In D&D, every character has one of nine alignments.  These describe their attitude toward good versus evil along one axis and law versus chaos along the other. 

As I was setting this out, one of these Christians asked me to explain the difference between the Lawful Good alignment and the Lawful Neutral alignment.  I told him that Lawful Good characters view the laws of society as a tool for bringing about justice and benefiting everyone, whereas Lawful Neutral characters look on law as an end in and of itself.  You follow the law Just Because.

He replied, “Oh; so Lawful Neutral is the way that some people think the church is.”

The more I thought about that, the more I decided it was worth exploring.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Lawful Neutral Christianity is not merely a perception of the church that others hold.  Instead, it represents a trap for us.

On the D&D moral axis, our lawfulness is undeniable.  “Do all in the name of the Lord,” we say, and we proceed to explain that in the context of Colossians 3:17, “name” means “authority”.  From that, it is easy to conclude that obedience to the authority of Christ is all that matters.  Thus, we need to marshal our arguments in such a way as to compel even the unwilling to obedience.  Every i must be dotted; every t must be crossed, whether you want to or not.

The problem is, though, that the New Testament doesn’t present itself as a Lawful Neutral system of ethics.  What underlies the law of Christ is not obedience, but love.  As Paul says in Romans 13:9, every commandment can be summed up in, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Rightly understood, every ordinance of God is an expression of love for somebody.  They exist not because God’s call to love is inadequate, but because our understanding of love is.  We are foolish and easily deceived, so we are prone to mistake selfishness for love.  By leading us to reject behavior that appeals to us but really is unloving, the commandments keep us on the path of godliness.

Because Christianity’s moral code is love-dependent, in the absence of love, it falls apart.  If you take love out of Christianity, you end up with Pharisaism or even worse.  Thus, Christian ethics always must be accepted internally rather than imposed externally.  If we make somebody go through the motions of loving God and others when they don’t share that love, all we have done is to create a hypocrite.

Lawful Neutral Christianity is seductive.  All of us have known the desire to compel someone else to be righteous, to beat them over the head with the Bible enough that they give in.  However, unless love is present, righteousness never will be.  The gospel cannot penetrate the hard hearts of the unwilling, but in those who desire to follow Jesus, it will produce not merely lawfulness, but goodness.

Psalm 103

Thursday, March 11, 2021

My soul, exalt the name of God;
Recall with thanks each benefit:
He pardons your iniquities,
And He redeems you from the pit.
He crowns you with His faithful love,
And He renews your years with rest
Because He acts with righteousness
And He is just to the oppressed.

To Israel He made known His ways;
He showed His mercy and His grace;
He does not hold His anger long
Nor keep our crimes before His face.
As high is heaven is from earth,
So is His love when we obey;
As far as east is from the west,
So far He takes our sins away.

Our Father knows our mortal frame:
Our days are numbered, like the grass;
The tempest blows; it is no more,
And from its place it soon will pass.
But God will always show His love
To those who honor Him with awe,
And He will bless with righteousness
The ones who know and keep His law.

The Lord has set His throne above;
He rules all things with majesty;
Exalt the Lord, you angels all,
Who do His will so faithfully!
Exalt the Lord, all you His hosts,
With all who bow to His control;
In all His works, let Him be praised;
Exalt Him always, O my soul!

Suggested tune:  “Higher Ground”

Elders in Every Church

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In our Bible reading for this week, there appears a passage that is easy to read past but has profound implications for the organization of our churches.  It is Acts 14:23.  From it, we learn that on the return leg of the first missionary journey, Paul appointed elders in every church that he had established.  This took place mere months, if not weeks, after the gospel first was proclaimed in these places. 

Clearly, Paul, and indeed the Holy Spirit, placed a high priority on having elders!  Sadly, it is not at all apparent that churches of Christ in the 21st century share this priority.  Though I’m not aware of any official statistics on the subject, my impression is that only about a quarter to a third of congregations are led by elders. 

Brethren, this is a serious problem.  Indeed, I believe it is the most serious problem facing churches today.  More than a godless society, more than porn, more even than strife among brethren, God’s sheep are getting slaughtered for lack of shepherds.  This evening, then, let’s contemplate the importance and implications of having elders in every church.

In this regard, we first must set our hearts on FOLLOWING THE PATTERN.  We see God’s pattern for the first-century church set out in Philippians 1:1.  Here is how the church is supposed to be organized:  elders, deacons, and ordinary saints.  As all of us know, sometimes churches can’t follow this pattern.  They lack a plurality of qualified men to appoint.

I understand that.  What I struggle with is the way that so many brethren have become so comfortable with belonging to a congregation that is not organized according to the pattern.  This kind of complacency is spiritually dangerous, and it can arise for at least two reasons.

The first is loyalty to the building more than to the Bible.  Consider, for instance, a county in which there are three sound churches, each one with an attendance of about 50 on Sunday mornings.  Not surprisingly, none of these congregations have elderships.  Congregations of that size usually aren’t able to sustain them.  However, each congregation does have one man who is qualified to serve but can’t in the absence of qualified fellows.

Now, if the Christians in these congregations were really determined to be part of a congregation with an eldership, they could have one.  They could merge their three congregations into a single congregation of 150 people, appoint three elders, and serve God according to the pattern.

In real life, though, even though this situation exists all over the country, I have never heard of churches joining together so they can have an eldership.  Everybody wants those other churches to close up shop and come worship with them, but nobody wants to leave their building, even if holding on to the building comes at the cost of following God’s pattern.  I believe that congregations are authorized to own buildings, but when it comes to elders in every church, our buildings do us no favors!

The second reason that I see is that people seek a church without elders because they don’t want to be under the authority of elders.  Sometimes, they literally drive by a sound congregation with elders on the way to their church that doesn’t have them.  Maybe it’s that these people can’t become elders themselves but love having a voice in business meetings.  Maybe it’s that the elders in that other congregation wouldn’t do things just the same way they would prefer.

Regardless, the tragedy here is that all of these people would insist proudly that they are committed to following God’s pattern for the church, but when it comes to their own deviation from the pattern, they are blind.  May all of us have the humility and wisdom to seek the leadership of elders wherever possible!

Second, we must focus on SUBMITTING TO ELDERS.  The Holy Spirit tells us to do this in as many words in 1 Peter 5:5.  This is not a popular concept in our society because Americans are rugged individualists who don’t believe in submitting to anybody!  Nonetheless, when God’s word conflicts with our cultural inclinations, it is culture that must give way.

This text does not mean, of course, that we must submit to elders who ignore or override the word of God.  God instituted the office of elder, not the office of pope!  The role of the elder isn’t to establish doctrine anyway, though they are responsible for defending it.  Instead, they are responsible for exercising good judgment in areas where the Scriptures do not speak clearly.

When they do this, we are responsible for deferring to their judgment.  This does not mean that they are necessarily right every time we disagree with them.  It does mean, though, that we should behave as though they are.  It’s not a sin to have bad judgment, even if you’re an elder.  However, stirring up trouble in the congregation is a sin, and anytime members loudly express their disapproval of the elders’ decisions, trouble is the inevitable result.

Once again, remember that serving as an elder is one of the most difficult and thankless jobs imaginable.  How would you like to live with the knowledge that you will have to give an account for every single soul at Jackson Heights?  Every malcontent, every backslider, every dumb kid (and every dumb grownup too, for that matter)—if you are one of the elders here, every one of them is your problem.  Your job is to try to get every one of them to heaven, even if they show no apparent interest in going, because Jesus died for the malcontents and backsliders and dumb kids, and God loves them.  How would you like to carry that burden around with you, everywhere you go, every single day?

Brethren, these men serve us at the cost of tremendous heartache and suffering.  The least we can do is to make their work as easy as possible.

Finally, we need men who ASPIRE TO SERVE.  Consider the spirit expressed in 1 Timothy 3:1.  Now, given what I just finished saying about the difficulty of serving, we might find ourselves wondering why on earth anyone would want to become an elder. 

Of course, that’s exactly the point.  There is no earthly reason, and men who are motivated by the flesh do not want to become self-sacrificing shepherds.  However, there was no earthly reason for Jesus to become flesh and die in our place either.  To the same extent that our spirits are stirred by the desire to imitate His humility and selflessness, we also should desire the office of elder.

It is vitally important for this congregation that there be younger men here who feel this way, and younger women who desire to support their husbands in this work.  I love and honor our elders, but they’ve all got a serious problem.  Every last one of them is mortal, and sooner or later, whether through death or incapacity, all of them will reach the point when they can no longer serve.  When that happens, either younger men will have prepared to take their place, and the eldership here will continue, or those younger men haven’t, and we are in big trouble.

In the Lord’s church, we have a bad habit of preaching on the eldership only when we’re about to appoint elders.  Brethren, that puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  Recognizing a man who is qualified is relatively easy compared to becoming a man who is qualified!

This week, then, if we think we might want to serve someday, or if we have husbands who might want to serve, let’s pause to take stock.  Let’s look up those character portraits of the elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Let’s use those portraits as a mirror.  Let’s look to see where we measure up and especially where we don’t.  Then, let’s ask where we need to change in order to prepare ourselves to take up the burden of leadership.

Where Persecution Comes From

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

In Acts 13-14, we see the beginning of what will become a dreary pattern for the missionary journeys of Paul.  It goes like this:  Paul comes to a new city and preaches the gospel in the local synagogue.  Some Jews believe, but so do many God-fearing Gentiles.  At this, the unbelieving Jews become enraged, seek to harm Paul and his companions in some way, and drive him on to the next city, where the cycle repeats itself.

This pattern is familiar to any student of the book of Acts, but often we don’t spend much time considering why it occurred.  To us, the persecutors are faceless Bad Guys.  They are two-dimensional obstacles to the spread of the gospel, not really much different than the Mediterranean tempest of Acts 27 or the viper that bites Paul in the next chapter. 

In reality, of course, these unbelievers are not like storms or snakes.  They were real people who lived 2000 years ago, with lives and jobs and families.  On their own terms, they even were good people.  Even though they lived in an ungodly society, they did their best to live according to the Law of Moses and the traditions of their fathers.  They paid to build and maintain their synagogues, and they worshiped there every Sabbath.  It’s quite likely, in fact, that at least some of these people had a good reputation in their communities:  honest, hardworking, devout, and generous to the poor.

And yet, when confronted with the gospel, not only do these good, godly people fail the greatest spiritual test of their lives.  They fail it spectacularly.  They are overcome by jealousy and rage.  They respond to the gospel with insult and slander.  They try to incite the local authorities against Paul and his companions.  They follow them to other cities to oppose them there.  They engage in conspiracy and even, in Acts 14:19, in attempted murder.

What in the world???

Whenever we see someone behaving in such an extremely hateful way, they are pretty much waving a flag over their heads that says, “I Feel Threatened”.  In this case, Paul made the Jews feel threatened by undermining their perception of their relationship with God.  They thought they were pleasing to Him; Paul showed that they were sinners in need of the grace of Jesus.  They thought that only the Jews were God’s chosen people, but Paul invited the Gentiles into their exclusive club. 

I believe that in the future, God’s people increasingly will experience the same thing.  As our society becomes increasingly godless, we will see more persecution, not because the gospel has become relevant, but because it remains so relevant that it is threatening.  Like the Jews of 2000 years ago, these people will attack us because the truth we bear poses an intolerable affront to their self-image.  We should not be surprised by this fiery trial, but neither should we allow it to discourage us.  It is when the darkness is greatest that the light has its most profound effect.

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