Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Secondary Pearl of Great Price

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it." Matthew 13:45-46 (NKJV)

I love Jesus Christ's parables. They provide us with a clear view of God's upside-down (by the world's standards) expectations for his people.

The pearl of great price is one of my favorites. Jesus tells us that being a part of his kingdom is of greater worth than everything else we have combined. It is a short and succinct parable of profound truth. Living with and for Christ is the most important thing by far in this life. All else is chaff in comparison to knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior. While some in scripture understood this (such as Paul), others did not (the rich young ruler).

I like to think of the church as a secondary pearl of great price. When we are part of the kingdom, we are also a part of the church. The two are not the same, but are closely related. The life we can have in fellowship with other believers is of great value.

Over the past several years I feel as if I've stumbled upon a secondary pearl of great price. While I used to think of church as institutional programs, I now see that God's plan for his church is one based in true fellowship. This pearl I've unexpectedly come upon is one that many of you have discovered as well. We didn't look for it, but God in his grace revealed it.

This pearl is one that we want to share with others. The difficulty is that many other believers are not yet ready to hear about it. My suggestion is telling them about it bit by bit as God gives the opportunity. Additionally, we can show other Christians what it is like by simply inviting them over for a meal and fellowship.

A biblical view of church life is a pearl of great price. Let's thank God that he's let us be a part of it. Let's show others grace who have never thought about it. Let's pray for opportunities to tell others about it. Let's understand that it will at times be a lonely walk. It's worth it because the pearl is of such great value.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why I Wear a Shirt at the Lake

This week our family is relaxing at my uncle's cabin at Seneca Lake in central New York State. The best parts of being at the lake are swimming in the water and hanging out on the dock. As long as the weather cooperates, we spend the majority of the time outside.

I wear a shirt whenever I'm outside. While almost all men in this situation take off their shirts, I keep mine on. This flies in the face of what is considered normal, but it's something I realized that I need to do.

A few years ago I posted something on Facebook about not thinking that Christian women should wear bikinis (I still believe this). I received wide-ranging responses. Some FB friends were thrilled that I would speak up for modesty. Others told me that I was being legalistic. However, one response stuck with me. One woman asked me whether or not I took my shirt off when going in a pool or going to the beach. I said I did. She then told me that I was being inconsistent.

At first I rejected her assertion. The more I thought about it, the more I came to agree with her. I was being inconsistent. How could I say that women should refrain from wearing bikinis when I myself took my shirt off in public? I realize that the two are not exactly the same, but there is quite a bit of similarity. My claim that women should avoid bikinis is based on the idea that it can cause males to stumble into the sin of lust. The lady on Facebook said that shirtless males cause the same problem for women. I had never pondered this before. Instead of thinking all the way through the issue, I had simply bought into cultural norms for what males should wear.

In order to be consistent I decided to begin wearing shirts when I used to take them off in public. I don't foist this idea on anyone else, but I'm glad to be consistent.

I wonder how many other places in life I'm still inconsistent. Probably quite a few.

Have you noticed any places in your life where inconsistency was pointed out? What did you do?

Monday, July 29, 2013

What Do You Put On for Church?

How many times have you gotten dressed up for church? For most of my life Sunday mornings were at least semi-hectic because I was looking for something nice to wear. Then, as a pastor, I had to wear a suit.

I've heard it said on multiple occasions that we should give God our best on Sundays, and this includes our clothes. This may sound nice, but the reality is that is has no biblical basis. God doesn't care what we put on (concerning clothing) when we get together as long as we are appropriately modest. That said, does God care at all what we put on? Yes, in fact, he does. As we gather as the body, and any time for that matter, God's desire is the following:

"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." Colossians 3:12-14

These verses describe not only God's desire for us but also his expectation. We truly should look different from the world. The look described here is not one of physical appearance but rather attitude and action. We are to treat one another with great grace. When we do, body meetings are a blessed occasion. When we live out these verses in front of the world, the world takes notice. This may earn us an ear for a gospel presentation.

God cares what we put on. Ultimately what we put on is a heart issue. Only a life lived for Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit can look like what Paul describes above. Let's all put on the things that God cares about.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Don't Expect Them to Understand (But Hope That They Will)

I've finally concluded that most other Christians we know have no idea why we think what we think about the church. This is no fault of theirs. It's just the way it is.

My wife and I have had numerous conversations with other believers about the church. Some have been good discussions, while other have been less so. We try to avoid arguments at all costs. In the end, we hope that others will at least understand where we are coming from. Some do while others don't.

In general we do not try to change other people's minds about church. All believers have been called to be witnesses to Christ, not to a particular form of church. We are to make disciples, not make converts to simple church life. That said, we do wish that most believers we talk with could at least understand why we believe what we do.

The difficulty (and this may be your experience as well) is that many Christians have not ever given much thought to the issue. They have simply lived out institutional church life as they have been taught. Again, I'm faulting no one in this. It is just the way it is.

We should not expect other Christians to understand us. The reason for this is that most believers have no framework in which to place these discussions. Since they've never thought about it, it makes almost no sense to them. They see no problems with the way they live church life. Rather, they probably think things are going along swimmingly where they attend. Because of this, we should not expect them to gain a firm grasp of why we don't "go to church," why we meet in homes, why we don't have a pastor, why we eat together each week, why we don't listen to sermons, why we sit is small groups, etc.

Despite this, we can and should hope that they will eventually understand. Through many conversations it is quite possible, even likely, that they will begin to comprehend why we believe what we do. This will take grace, patience, and understanding on our part. We did not come to our conclusions about church overnight.

This is all secondary to gospel issues of course. And yet, it sure would be nice if those closest to us knew why we do what we do. Let's hope to bring about fruitful dialogue that will lead to their understanding. This is not with the goal of changing their minds (although it would be fine if they did). Rather, it is so that they will understand and respect the conclusions we've come to.

They may not understand, but I hope they will.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tithing After the Cross

Does the tithe apply to Christians today? This is a significant question that needs an answer based in scripture as opposed to man's traditions. David Croteau provides us with that answer.

In Tithing After the Cross, Croteau systematically explains numerous traditional arguments in favor of the tithe, and then shows why each of the arguments fails. The author deals with arguments from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, from systematic theology, from church history, and from pragmatics.

The book concludes with a chapter on how Christians should give today. I appreciate that Croteau provides various principles for giving based in scripture, but refrains from suggesting any sort of formula or dollar amount.

The only negative is that the author says it's important to remember that the local church has bills to pay and that the pastoral staff has financial needs. Unlike the remainder of the book, he doesn't root these statements solidly in scripture. But hey, no book is perfect.

I recommend this book for two reasons. First, it focuses on a key topic in the Christian life: giving. Second, the author deals biblically and concisely with a wide range of issues related to the tithe.

It's a quick read (only about seventy pages) and is inexpensive. You'll enjoy it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"What Do You With the Verse that Says...?"

I don't wear on my sleeve what I believe about the church. I doubt that you do either. However, if you think outside the institutional box about what the church should be, you will eventually get some questions. Some of these questions are legitimate, while others are just designed to cause/win an argument.

I have zero desire to engage in any more theological and/or ecclesiological debates. My years in seminary sort of inoculated me against that. I encourage you to avoid these types of arguments as well.

No matter how hard I try, I still run into Christians who want to argue with me about the church. These folks are not angry, but at the same time they definitely want to win an argument. Not long into the conversation they unfailingly begin with the proof text verses. It will sound like this, "What do you do with the verse that says..........?"

In my experience these verses are yanked out of context about 98% of the time (no exaggeration). Not surprisingly, most of the verses apply to O.T. Israel as opposed to the church. Regardless, the verses are forced out of their original paragraphs and into isolation. Standing alone, the verses almost sound like evidence for the institutional practices that these folks are defending.

I've decided what my answer is going to be from now on when I hear, "What do you do with the verse that says............?"

My answer will be, "I look at the context."

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

God's Not Dead

During the July 4th holiday I actually purchased and began reading a book. Amazingly, I found a good one as I was looking around a Barnes and Noble. My wife and I went there to get coffee. As I was trolling for something to look at I came upon God's Not Dead.

The book's subtitle explains well what it is all about, "Evidence for God in an age of uncertainty." The author, Rice Broocks, penned this excellent book in apologetics. He argues in a straightforward manner for the existence of God based on a number of reasons including life having meaning, the reality of good and evil, the fine tuning of the universe, the start of the universe, Jesus' resurrection, the witness of scripture, and the change in the lives of Jesus' followers.

This book has enough depth to make it worth the time, but is it not heavy or boring. Broocks includes numerous personal anecdotes that make it fairly easy to read. I highly recommend God's Not Dead for all Christians and anyone wondering about Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Don't Feel Guilty for Wanting More

Many of us spent numerous years in the institutional church setting. At a point along the way we realized that something was very wrong. Although we loved many of the people (and were loved by them), we still wanted much more out of church life. After a long, frustrating struggle we decided to leave the institution. It was not an easy decision, but was one that had to be made.

If the above applies to you, my encouragement to you is that you don't have to feel guilty about your decision. You may be thinking, "I don't feel any guilt at all." Good. I hope so. However, if you do feel guilt at some level I'd like to tell you that you don't need to.

Please remember that you didn't leave the church of God's creating. Instead, you departed from a man-made veil that has been foisted upon the church through the centuries. You simply removed the veil in order to see Christ more clearly. What you are yearning for is likely the positives you've read about the N.T. church.

You may go through many years of longing and wandering. This can be frustrating. However, you should not feel any guilt because of it. On the contrary, I believe that desiring something more from church life is actually honoring to God. Why is this? The answer is that you are longing for the church that God designed.

I hope you find it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Islam and Homosexuality: Two Great Gospel Challenges

As I look at the world today, many challenges stand in the way of the spread of the gospel. Various belief systems and/or lifestyles are at odds with the good news of Jesus Christ. They are too many to list here. However, when I think about the big picture of missions, two great challenges in particular come to mind: Islam and homosexuality. Both are worldviews. Both are lifestyle choices. Both are directly at odds with the gospel of Christ.

My purpose is not to equate Islam and homosexuality. They have some obvious differences. Islam is a world religion that is hundreds of years old. It has set beliefs and practices. Muslims is general are very much against homosexuality.

Homosexuality is more a lifestyle choice than an organized religion. Its adherents are generally more focused upon embracing specific sexual behaviors than they are on specific beliefs about God. Some homosexuals even claim to be Christians (I'll leave that one for another blog post).

Despite their differences, Islam and homosexuality have one thing in common: they are at odds with Christianity. Specifically, both Muslims and homosexuals have a heart problem - a spiritual heart problem. That problem is the most significant problem anyone can have. Their heart problem is that they do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Thus, their hearts are still far from God.

What are we, therefore, to do?

First, let's avoid the trap of letting politics confuse us. I'm determined to steer clear of any sort of Republican vs. Democrat fighting on these topics. I have no interest in fighting foreign wars in Muslim nations or in fighting culture wars against homosexuals here in the USA.

The important war is in the spiritual realm. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Ultimately, the gospel is a war that God has already won over Satan.

Our duty, then, is to endlessly love and pray for both Muslims and homosexuals. Let's develop relationships with them. Let's lovingly and truthfully tell them all about Jesus Christ. Let's treat them with respect as humans made in God's image. Let's love them even if they hate us.

Muslims and homosexuals need Jesus Christ just like everyone else. Only Jesus is powerful enough to break their chains of sin. He did it for us. Let us literally pray that he does it for them as well.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Simple Solution for Many Church Problems

The solution: sell the church building and give the proceeds to international missions work.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Twelve Things to Know Before Attending Seminary

I have mixed emotions about seminaries (I've written about this a few times here, here, and here). Today's post is for those of you who are considering going to seminary. From someone who managed to graduate (by the grace of God) after four years of toil, here are twelve things, in no particular order, that you should know before taking the plunge:

1. Seminary is much harder on your family than it is on you.

You will find seminary to be a challenging time personally as you try to balance work, school, church, family, etc. However, you will also get to experience all the wonderful things of seminary. Classes and chapel will likely be very positive times. Your family, meanwhile, will probably spend most of their days in seminary housing, far from friends and family. Especially at first they will be very lonely. My advice is to take them to chapel and even the occasional class. Talk to your wife about the fascinating things you are learning. Also, when time permits, get involved in on-campus fun activities for family.

2. Be prepared to read - a lot.

I hope you like reading because you're going to be doing a lot of it. Get in the habit before you go. Just to help prepare your brain, you might want to begin by reading a good systematic theology like this one (I'm not kidding).

3. The original languages are the most important classes to take.

You can gain the vast majority of general seminary class knowledge you need simply by reading good books. However, just about the only way to learn biblical Hebrew and Greek is to take multiple classes in each of these. It will require a great deal of time and effort, but you will not regret it. My advice is to begin by taking Greek your first semester. Plan to take at least one language class every semester you are at seminary.

4. Seminary is pastor-focused.

Most seminary graduates intend to become professional pastors (by this I mean that they will work for a church that will provide them with a salary). Because of this, the atmosphere in general and the curriculum in particular are aimed at pastors-to-be. Additionally, most of the chapel speakers will be pastors who will aim their sermons at pastors-to-be. Just be prepared for this.

5. Preaching is viewed as the most important skill of the pastor.

At the seminary I attended, "preaching class" was seen by the students as the high point of the curriculum. Preaching is what takes place in every chapel. Throughout all that occurs on campus, preaching is thought of as the highest skill of the pastor. This is largely unquestioned (at least by the students).

6. You will have various types of missions opportunities.

I was privileged to attend a seminary that takes missions seriously. Because of this, there were almost constant missions trip opportunities. I was able to go on two trips while in school: one to West Virginia and the other to India. My advice is to take advantage of this if you can. Make every effort to go on at least one international missions trip. If you are married, make sure your wife gets to go, too.

7. Seminary does not take place of the church.

Due to time constraints there is a real temptation to think of seminary as a substitute for church life. This is dangerous. Seminary is largely about knowledge transfer. Church, however, is about mutual edification in Christ. Additionally, your family isn't attending seminary like you are. They probably need a church family even more than you do. Also, don't expect to find a church that is like the one you left back home. Instead, just try to find a place where you can help others grow (and where the majority of the church is non-seminarian).

8. You can grow closer to or farther from Christ.

As in any other time of life, your relationship with Jesus can deepen or grow weaker while at seminary. Taking classes about Jesus is not the same as walking in step with him.

9. Minor differences can easily get blown way out of proportion.

Both in class and out you will have many opportunities to engage in theological discussions with other students. Sometimes the finer points of theology start to seem too important. These can become dividing points when they never should be. Be careful to keep what's most important just that - most important. That is the gospel.

10. Pressure to adhere to the church institution is ever-present.

Institutional practices are ever-present because they are rarely questioned. If you do question them, be prepared to be given strange looks. Those types of questions are not generally welcomed. Interestingly, I found that professors were usually much more willing to question the institution than students were. Feel free to ask hard questions, but just be ready to be in the minority when you do.

11. Do not expect to be taught biblical ecclesiology.

This goes along with number ten. Because seminaries are part of the larger church institution, they cannot teach biblical ecclesiology. While in seminary I wondered why I wasn't required to take a specific class on the church. Now I know why. It couldn't be taught. Too many difficult and uncomfortable questions would arise.

12. Remind yourself over and over that you are not an expert.

After you take a few classes in Greek, church history, ethics, etc., you may be tempted to think of yourself as part of the biblical elite. This is Satan speaking through pride. Watch out (no joking here). We are all part of an equal priesthood of all believers. Those who graduate from seminary are no better in any way than other believers. I'm certainly no expert. Tell yourself repeatedly that you are just another believer. Nothing more and nothing less.

Finally, if you are considering attending seminary please be certain that it is one that embraces the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many seminaries no longer do. Also, find one that has missions as a central focus. Let me recommend a few American seminaries:

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Asbury Theological Seminary
Dallas Theological Seminary
Fuller Theological Seminary
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Master's Seminary
Reformed Theological Seminary
Talbot School of Theology
Trinity Evangelical Divinty School
Westminster Theological Seminary

Additionally, more than a few excellent seminaries exist overseas. I cannot recommend any due to lack of knowledge on my part. However, I highly encourage you to research it. I've been told than an international seminary experience is like no other.

Friday, July 5, 2013

When Everyone Participates Christ Alone is Exalted

One of the beauties of participatory church gatherings is that, by definition, everyone is invited to participate.
While the specifics of the get-togethers may differ, one of the key similarities is that every person present has the opportunity to share out loud what the Holy Spirit has given him or her to say. This may take the form of a scripture reading, a testimony, a prayer, a teaching, a prophecy, etc. The only three restrictions are the following: it must be provided by the Spirit, consistent with scripture, and edifying to the body.

When the body operates in this manner no one person is elevated in any way. All present are equally important parts of the body both in status and function. No one leads from the front (there probably isn't a front). No one stands on a stage. No one speaks far more than anyone else. In fact, nothing happens that would point out any one person as more strategic to body life than anyone else. Elders will likely be present, but if they are acting as they should they will not stand out.

In this type of gathering only one person is exalted. Somewhat ironically, he's the one who is present spiritually but not physically. That person is clearly Jesus Christ. This is as it should be since he is the head of his church:

"And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church." Ephesians 1:22

"For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior." Ephesians 5:23

"And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent." Colossians 1:18

Colossians 1:18 is a beautiful summary verse about both the existence of the universe in general and the purpose of the church in particular. It all exists to display the preeminence of Jesus Christ.

Church family gatherings should, therefore, in every way embrace and show off the supremacy of Jesus Christ in all things (both in form and function). This occurs best when everyone is not only allowed but encouraged to participate. The result is a fully functional church body in which the only person exalted in any manner is the only one who should be: our Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible

Due to my current work schedule I don't have much time to read. Therefore, I try to be wise in what books I select. A few weeks ago I was wandering around a Christian bookstore when I came upon The Most Misused Verses in the Bible. My first thought was the following, "If the author deals with Jeremiah 29:11, then I'll buy the book." When I opened to the table of contents I found that Jeremiah 29:11 was the second verse dealt with. I was hooked.

I admit to preferring books that are 150-200 pages long. Anything longer than that should usually be shorter. This book, written by Eric Bargerhuff, is just a little over 150 pages. In that span the author addresses seventeen different verses that are frequently misinterpreted within the church. I appreciate that Bargerhuff's main emphasis is the absolute importance of keeping verses in context as we try to understand them. He consistently stresses this from beginning to end.

Many books that deal with the issue of interpretation are, in a word, boring. This book is not. The author focuses on each verse for only five to six pages. This forces him to get straight to the point. Because of this, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible is very readable for any Christian. No one needs to be intimidated by it. If you are looking for lengthy exegesis, this is not the book for you. However, if you'd like something that you can read fairly quickly but will still be informative, then buy this book.

In my opinion Bargerhuff's five most significant chapters target the following verses:

Matthew 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged."

Jeremiah 29:11-13, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart."

Romans 8:28, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

II Chronicles 7:14, "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

We all need to know how to read and interpret the scriptures correctly. This short book is a useful tool in that endeavor. I highly recommend it.