At my church, since shortly after Easter, we've been doing a sermon series on the Book of Acts. Now, it's been a very big-picture review of the book, we're not really doing every verse or even every story, we're focusing largely on the major beats of the book and what it says about the nature, origin, and source of power for the church. Last week, the sermon covered basically the whole first missionary journey, and this coming Sunday I've been asked to preach on the second. Which I am in the process of preparing, there is a big lesson from the whole trip, that's all fine. One thing I will not have time to talk about in depth there, however, that I really feel a desire to talk about, is what happened between those two trips.
Most of Acts 15 is occupied with the Jerusalem Council, at which they addressed the question of the day: how Jewish do gentile converts need to become to be considered Christian? That is, as non-Jewish people were entering what was then a predominately Jewish movement, how much did they have to adopt Jewish practice to be welcomed as members? The short answer in that particular instance was very little. It was observed at the council that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on gentile converts, which seemed to indicate God's acceptance of them (us, let's be honest here), and that acceptance into the church had been established as being a function of grace and not keeping the Mosaic law. Therefore, it made no sense to demand that people make themselves as Jewish as they could before they could be considered Christian.
Which, as it happens, reminds me of something else going on. I've been trying to figure out a way to say some of this, but I think instead I'll let someone else present the general concept and then just show how it applies.
Shannon raises a number of concerns above, but the one that is most relevant here is that the default expectation of white Americans, and white American churches if I'm honest, is that black people need to prove they can be white before they can be considered Americans (or Christians, in the churches). Because of the nature of this blog, I'm going to zero in on the application specific to churches and Christians, using the same general concepts that Shannon uses to zero in on sports (his own area of expertise).
See, when countries like England and Spain and France were out conquering the world, they had this notion that having Christians in the culture made the culture Christian. When Spanish missions were popping up in the new world, for instance, they did not simply tell the native peoples around them about Christ and offer whatever gifts they had in service to the community. They demanded cultural conquest; in their minds, being Christian wasn't simply a matter of serving Christ as Lord and rejecting the authority and draw of sin. It wasn't simply being Catholic, as the missionaries were. It was living like the Spanish do, thinking like the Spanish do, speaking the Spanish language, eating Spanish food. Being Christian meant, for all intents and purposes, being thoroughly Spanish.
This notion carried over to the new world. People around the world recoil at the concept of missionaries because they, or their elders, have memories of people coming in and establishing an American lifestyle and an American style of worship and American values and calling it all the gospel. This is why my wife and I, as hopeful future missionaries, are targeting a sending agency that would put us under the authority of native-born church planters, to lend them our skills and gifts but let them decide how the actual work is carried out; we are refusing to establish little outposts of America and call them churches, even accidentally.
And this is happening at home. Consider the recoil against identity politics. I have heard some version of this at all kinds of levels, from major movements within denominations to individual elders at little local churches, that "well, we want to support people who are hurting, but we don't want to get wrapped up in identity politics." But what are identity politics? Basically, they're nothing more than people saying "because of this, or these, aspect(s) of who I am, I have these specific concerns and issues and goals." See, what we are saying when we talk about wanting to avoid that, is that we want to help people who are hurting, as long as they are hurting in ways we understand. As long as they are hurting in ways we hurt. That people who do not share our history, or our experiences, or our backgrounds, or our relationship to government authority, must nonetheless act like they do before we can view them as brothers and sisters with an equal share of Christ and an equal right to be supported as family. In fact, we sometimes treat it as an attack on the gospel itself to consider the possibility that people with a different ethnic background are facing different problems. As Shannon pointed out, we expect them to look at the flag and our nation's history through our lens rather than their own before we're willing to consider their concerns valid.
Because this is what we've convinced ourselves Christianity looks like. Being a Christian means viewing the world and one's nation and one's flag and history the way white Evangelical Republicans do. And the result is that my Facebook wall has dozens of posts from people saying they do not, and cannot, understand how certain forms of protest help advance the cause. Hear me on this: no one cares if you understand. Very little of it is aimed at making you understand (blocking traffic does tend to have the implicit "if you're this angry about being unable to advance for an hour, imagine how angry you would be if your entire culture was unable to advance for decades" statement, but not everything does). The question is, are you listening? And if you are listening, what are you going to do about it?
Protest march against police violence - Justice for George Floyd by Fibonacci Blue. Used under Creative Commons.
This basic issue was already addressed. At the Council of Jerusalem it was decided that people who are part of, or enter, the church do not have any requirements to adopt the mannerisms or rules or behaviors of the people who were already in the church. They needed to serve Christ, and while this will make some changes in their lives, the established church doesn't get to dictate full compliance with their own cultural norms before they are seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. No ethnic or cultural group gets to decide that Christianity naturally looks like their cultural norms. They didn't need to act like they had lived under the strict Pharisaical laws for generations before the Holy Spirit was poured out on them, they didn't need to get circumcised or adopt Jewish rituals before they could be considered Christians and given all the welcome and support that entails. Why now do we behave as though our black brothers and sisters have to act like they have our background, act like they have only our problems, act like us before we can extend the fullness of brotherhood to them? Why do we demand that they think like us, vote like us, walk like us, live fully like us, eat our food, speak our language, protest in a way we approve, before we can see any way to support them as family?
What is it going to take for us to listen? How many people are going to die before we decide to work with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep, to stand as agents of the Author of Life against forces that are bringing death and destruction? How badly must the world break around us before we realize that our own brokenness is feeding into it? How much more will we burden our brothers and sisters, people in our churches and serving the same Christ, not only with the trials they already face, but with our silence and judgment in the face of it?
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."
Questioning Personal Calling
- Your spiritual gifts can give you some clue as to your mission, because your mission will be something God has equipped you to do;
- Your trained skills can give you some clue as to your mission, because your mission will be something you have been prepared to do;
- Your interests can give you some clue as to your mission, because your mission will likely be something you can recognize and be drawn to;
- Your context, including where you are physically and where you are on your specific life journey, can give you some clues as to your mission, because God has been molding and placing you to perform it;
- Your limitations can give you some clue as to your mission, because it will not be something you will be capable of or comfortable doing without leaning on God's power and guidance.
Consider Moses. His gifting and skills enabled him to lead a large body of people, to judge fairly and honorably, to write the texts they would need going forward, and to face great trials. His interest in protecting his fellow children of Jacob enabled him to see their need and desire to find some freedom for them. His life experiences gave him access to Pharaoh, knowledge of the Midian desert, the skills he used leading Israel, and an unshakable faith that God would do exactly what He said He would do. His difficulty at speech meant he needed always to lean on God for his words and on his brother to deliver them, and his willingness to run when things got hairy meant he had to rely on God to be the example of strong leadership Israel needed.
Questioning Church Membership
Some initial questions:
- Have I submitted to the church leadership?
- Do I understand the church's mission?
- Do I understand my calling?
- Am I actually performing my calling, or at least seeking opportunities to do so?
- Have I invested in this church? Do I care about the people here and the work they do?
- Am I bitter about something and finding it difficult to work with the church because of that?
If none of these resolve the issue (and sometimes even if they do), you need to talk to the church leadership. The exact person will vary based on your church's leadership structure and your relationships to them, but identify someone in a position to handle your questions and who you feel comfortable receiving honest answers from. Ideally, you will have been already talking to this person while analyzing your calling.
Personal mission and church mission do not have to be identical to be compatible. Our church hosts a growing food pantry which some members feel strongly called to lead or participate in; the mission statement of the church does not include that, but it does serve the church's mission goal of serving the community in a Christ-centered way that enables opportunities for us to share the gospel. Take the time to find out whether or not your calling and the church mission are actually incompatible. It is entirely possible that the church leadership will know about directions the church is going, ministry opportunities, or just detail about the mission that you don't know for one reason or another, and they can point you to a way to do what you are called to do under the umbrella of the church's mission. It is, in fact, entirely possible that what you are called to do is something that doesn't exist at the church yet because they are waiting for someone called to do it.
Seek ways to serve. Use your spiritual gifts under the guidance of the church and for the building up of the body. As much as possible, seek ways to be an active, contributing part of what your church is doing. But if all of this is not working, and it becomes apparent that you are simply not built for what the church is doing, then it may be time to prayerfully look into places where you can be active and invested.
Questioning Church Mission
That being said, when the leadership revisits the church mission, it will generally follow pretty similar steps to those for analyzing personal calling, with the additional understanding that church missions are generally paired with church visions; the latter being where the church is going, and the former being how it will get there. Wise church leaders will look at how the people God has called to that body can do a work that uses the available gifts, skills, and interests to engage with the church's context to participate in a work that only God can bring to fruit.
Understand, it isn't that running for office is a bad thing, it's that my heart wants it for bad reasons. If I go into politics, I can let myself believe that I'm saving the world and doing it my way. But ministry, which I have been called to, doesn't allow that. Ministry has a knack for reminding people that we are just servants participating in God's work, and his plans are far better than ours. When I am fighting off the temptation to turn astray from my calling to pursue public office, I am fighting off a very direct idol of self and trying to reject following and trusting God. This will look different for all of us, but we must not give in to whatever it is that pulls our affection away.
I came close once. In the 2010 election cycle I went so far as to request the necessary paperwork to run for office and started filling it out and collecting signatures. I was registered as a Republican instead of a third party specifically so I could get some money from someone to fund the campaign. I went to dinner with this one girl and it came up that her dad was a liberal third party candidate for the same office I was trying to run for (Massachusetts 1st District, U.S. House of Representatives) and she never spoke to me again.
I was pretty serious about it, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But something started to nag at me that had been on my mind for about a year already.
I never turned the paperwork in.
Now my friend and I have joked about the fact that, afterward, there were emails about that sermon. I got emails about that sermon. He got emails about that sermon. These were not terribly encouraging emails. I haven't been back to his church. The real reason is that my family moved two hours away and I got pretty busy with another church so the opportunity just hasn't been there as much, but when we ran into each other at the Small Town Summit I joked that it was because of the emails we got from that sermon. My pastor sat in on the sermon and when he heard about the emails he told my friend that he wasn't really surprised. It truly is an act of grace that my pastor let me preach at our church after that.
But in one of those emails, a member of his church asked me what he seemed to think would be a gotcha question. "If you knew that being elected would ensure that you could stop abortion right now," he asked, "and save the lives of so many precious little ones, would you do it?" He was trying to get me to confess to a certain reliance on political power that I had condemned in the sermon, and oh, how tempting that question was. Not only because I am pro-life, but ever since the 2016 election I had been struggling even more with the temptation to get elected and burn the whole system down from inside. This guy was pushing exactly the right button, and I realized it wasn't an accident. So I prayed before I replied.
"I would not run," I answered. "Not because I do not value that cause, because I do value it; but because God has called me to a different path and I would rather turn down a great work than refuse that which God has commanded." I hit send and never heard from that guy again. And that moment has given me great comfort ever since.
When people ask me why I feel called to serve in full-time ministry I usually tell them that God has told us as much, and has confirmed that calling multiple times. What I don't mention as often is that He has also made it very clear that I don't belong anywhere else. Any time I go off and start trying to make my own plans and serve my own interest about things that I think will make me feel important and powerful and successful at forging my own path and saving the world because obviously I'm really equipped to be the savior of the world, He makes me choose. And each time, I have to stop and look at the door I'm trying to force open and be reminded of the one He's put my name on, and I have to let go.
And it gets easier. There are things I still struggle with and I'm sure there always will be, but they're diminishing and changing. As I have matured and grounded my joy on Christ more, I have found myself pushing off in my own direction less often. Because in the end, none of my attempts to make my life work by my rules ever brought me lasting joy or peace. Just look at the rest of the posts in this series and see a sampling of the pain I've endured and inflicted on others through my quest for self-fulfillment. When I serve me first, I can drift off into becoming a true monster, and it isn't worth it. Are you any different, really? Does your idolatry of self improve your life and soul and mind any more than mine has?
The Leader's Guide had us close the final session with Psalm 16, and while the whole psalm is worth consideration, I want to highlight two verses as I end my thoughts on this series.
I said to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
I have no good besides You."
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
Psalm 16:2, 11 (NASB)
"Under Fred's leadership it would be possible for us to slide a long way back toward where we once were, and that would be devastating."
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
The video narrator was the late Chuck Colson, who worked his way up to becoming a personal aide of President Nixon and was one of the people who went to prison in the wake of Watergate. He fits the mold of what we may most easily envision for someone who treats power as an idol: driven, quickly rising through the ranks of his chosen field, a known leader and power player on a stage few of us can ever manage to even reach. The questions, however, focused on helping us connect to Colson’s story to see how the idol of power can draw any of us. As Colson noted his youth during the Great Depression and his time in the Marines to be factors in how he viewed the world and himself, the provided questions encouraged us to look back at our past to see how it has impacted our present and the way we view ourselves and others. In response to that goal, and because this topic was so personally relevant, and to help clarify a different way this idol can manifest, I told my own story. Which went something like this:
I had a stubborn father who came from a stubborn family and the only options in that situation are to grow submissive or develop a habit of fighting. I went with the latter. While he still denies it, he also very openly invested in my brothers and their sports while only showing vague, if any, interest in my love of marching band and stage crew. I felt just as forgotten and overlooked as my city, and longed to have someone obsess about me the way I believed I saw him obsess over their cross country meets and baseball games. The combination of these things, a quick wit, and a natural bent toward charismatic leadership resulted in a very overt idol of power and my own clever use of people and situations to my own advantage; I especially sought respect and adoration from people I could control.
The thing is, I wasn’t driven. No one would describe me throughout my youth and early 20s as seeking after power or influence or position. I didn’t look like someone who worshiped power in those ways. What I became was someone who didn’t much care where I ended up, as long as I had manipulated my way there. I wanted to explore loopholes, control situations, make connections, and just freely breeze through life on a series of half efforts and adoring hangers-on. I acquired friends who would follow me, I manipulated people into getting into serious trouble for my own entertainment, and no matter how friendly I seemed while meeting them I instantly forgot anyone who I didn’t read as useful because they were beneath my notice. It was my ex-fiancee that set me on the path to breaking me of that. I’ve mentioned her before, how our relationship was deeply unhealthy and how one aspect of that was her desire to receive the kind of love she felt her life had been missing. The other side of it was my manipulation. Regardless of how much of it was intentional and how much wasn’t, what I actually did was break her down and try to remold her into what I wanted over the span of our entire relationship. My behavior toward her cannot be honestly described as anything but abusive. And when our relationship drove her to attempt suicide, I was forced to face the fact that I had done this. My elevation of self and power combined with her desire to be accepted by me sent us onto a path where she was addicted to the love I had for her and the only love I could offer was so corrupted it had nearly killed her.
But I was so deep into this idol that that still wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be the first or last time she would make that attempt because of me, and in my attempts to fix things I took a path that still ended up with me controlling where things went and how she would be forced to recover, without receiving any input from her or granting her any power over what happened to our relationship. Rather than face what I’d done, I ran away, and over the course of the next year God beat me down over and over until the day came where I was truly alone for the first time. I had no car, no money, no prospects, and no friends or family close enough to come to my aid. And I was furious. It would end up being a seven hour walk back to my new apartment, and I began that walk demanding an answer from God about His treatment of me, raging at the heavens for the ways everything had fallen apart. During that walk, God finally had His opening to soften my heart and help me see what I had become and how hard He had been fighting for me. It was the summer of 2009, completely lost and alone walking along a road in western Massachusetts, that I finally gave up control of my own life and submitted myself to fully serve Christ. It would be years after leaving my home town before He had done enough work in my life that I could really be trusted with power again.
It was my responses to my environment that set the path to this idol, and the way I played out my worship of it was nearly invisible to everyone around me. Despite how I described it above, to everyone else it just looked like fun little anecdotes and a gift of leadership and a devoted, though deeply mentally ill, significant other. There are people who still, even after I’ve tried to explain how much of it was my fault, blame her and the illness they see in her as the cause of all the problems in our relationship. This idol was unseen to her, the woman closest to me, and she continued to blame herself for years after we last saw one another. It was unseen even to me; I honestly thought my hands were clean through all of it. Because the way I chased after it didn’t look like money and fame and promotions, it looked like a slacker just drifting through life and somehow always having someone to call to avoid the worst effects of the lifestyle.
What should stand out in my story to highlight the idol, and what occupied a large percentage of the discussion as guided by the Leader’s Guide for the session, is how people are treated and viewed. Whether this idol manifests as a drive for success that views people as competition to be crushed or surpassed, or an abusive desire to control those closest to us, or anything else that takes people and views them as something other than human beings with equal standing before God, this idol can usually be seen in the way we view our fellow human beings. Because, as image-bearers of God, how we view one another tells much of how we view Him. Is this not why Jesus said that that which we do to the least of these, we do to Him? The idol of power seeks not only power over situations, but over the course of our lives and everything around us. In some way or another, when this idol is seated in our hearts, our ultimate desire is to be like God in the same way that caused Satan to fall. And no matter how well we hide this desire, it will come out in how we view and treat our fellow image-bearers of God.
As we examine our hearts to find the idols that dwell there, let us also examine the burdens we carry from our youth and the way we interact with other people. When something unhealthy arises in these relationships, with the course of our lives or with others, it may very well be evidence of an idol hidden deep in ourselves that has remained hidden from even ourselves. We must be a people humble enough to let go of control, confess our sins, and submit to the lordship of Christ. Let us be a people marked by humility, confession, and a desire to make our God greater than ourselves in all things.
As Idleman has been saying throughout the series, the core issue is trusting in anything other than God to do what only God can fully do. It is trusting in anything other than God for our salvation, whether eternal or immediate. The idolatry of money looks like treating money as our functional purpose, our immediate savior, our great help in time of need. It looks like basing our identity on our net worth. My one friend back home, who lived in a lower-income part of town, showed this idolatry when he refused to let our friend from a nicer part of town enter his home for years because of what he assumed the higher class friend would think of him on seeing his house, just as surely as the 1% show it by flaunting their wealth.
It's so easy to fall prey to this one, far easier than we tend to acknowledge. After all, money goes a great distance in defining our daily lives. Study after study has shown that our income bracket has a direct impact on the economic and higher educational opportunities available to us, our access to healthcare, our mental state, our likelihood of crime and drug addiction (and the punishment when we're caught), and the quality of our public schools.* We are judged constantly on our income, inside and outside the church. I have been turned away from a preaching class hosted by my pastor because my two work incomes still weren't enough to get us off food stamps and I was deemed "worse than an unbeliever" and therefore unable to preach based on a particular, and I believe twisted, read of 1 Timothy 5:8. I've had disputes with people, Christians and non, about whether or not I was allowed to use those same food stamps to buy something nice for my family once in a while instead of just the bare minimum every meal. These are Christians defining their views on morality based on income (amusingly enough, these same Christians will condemn the prosperity gospel without ever apparently seeing the connection they have to it).
It's natural to want to avoid these things, we want to avoid being the ones who get judged and dismissed and ignored because of our socioeconomic class. I can tell you that living that life is not comfortable or enjoyable. And there's nothing wrong with wanting to give our families a better life, to oppose injustice, to engage with our culture in a different way. But what can happen is we can view the trials we face as being bigger than the God we claim to serve, and put the opinions of individuals and our culture above the view God has of us. And once we do this, once we allow ourselves to be defined by something other than our identity in Christ and rely on something other than God for our immediate salvation and hope, we have set up an idol.
Our self-examination on these issues needs to go beyond the obvious. We need to be willing to submit to actual scrutiny of our intentions, our desires, our hopes and fears. And whenever an idol is found hidden away in one of these corners, we need to have the humility to repent and hand its place over to God.
The big question raised when discussing envy in the session was, "what does my envy say about who or what I actually value?" The very nature of envy is such that it reveals our desire for something other than what God has granted us, and this raises the question: are we seeking after Him and His glory, or are we seeking after something else? Are we more concerned with fame or money or validation than faithfully serving our Lord in whatever capacity He has determined? When we grow envious of the ministry someone else has been called to, we reveal that something about their ministry is so valuable to us that the gifts of God in our own lives don't quite make up for not having it.
So what do we do about it? Fundamentally, they said, envy has pride at its root. We fall into envy because our idea of ourselves says that we deserve what these other people have. So the first step in fighting our envy is to fight our pride.
One phrase that actively attacks our pride are the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30, that "He must increase, but I must decrease," but this only helps us stay humble if we take it at face value. They cited an interview with Roy Ortland where he confessed that he has been tempted to view ministry as more like "He must increase, and I must increase."
A humble Christian is content to be laid aside if God has any other tools to work with which may bring Him more glory.
But addressing our pride is just the first step. We cannot simply remove the desire to be great and not replace it with something else. That there is joy in serving God and serving others in His name, and we can pursue that joy as something greater than our markers for success or our own ideas on what a perfect ministry would look like. Ultimately, the cure for envy is the joy of the Lord in whatever we do.
Taking time to rest also glorifies God in its own way. It was noted that taking time to rest reminds us and others that God doesn't actually need us; He can see to it that the church is tended, even on our days off. It also showcases the fact that we, as Christians, rest in the completed work of Christ. We are not constantly striving and pushing and breaking ourselves to honor Him, but rather we can trust, and rest, and enjoy Him in all that we do.
They pointed out that Jesus is, ultimately, the One who will both honor us and provide our needs. These are things He promises to do in His word, and when we put weight on our churches to do that beyond their ability (or ours, often in the case of honor) we feed that disappointment and encourage bitterness. Ultimately, what we want from our churches when we go down this road is something that only God can provide, and we need to repent and trust in Him to do what He has promised to do.
What things do we allow to steal our joy? What does it look like to repent, and to trust God?
When everybody loves me
The fact is that we were actually made to draw our value and significance from love, but can never find that need satisfied by the love fallen humans can offer. Because the love we can offer each other, even without the fall, was always meant to be a reflection of the true and greater love poured out on us by God. We cannot be for each other the kind of lover we truly need.
While each lesson has had a question or two that invite people to talk about how these idols have impacted their lives, this was the first week that had us go into smaller groups and really dig into a period of confession. Probably because these idols are some of the easiest to fall into, and to never notice, and to never have noticed by those in our church families. I mean, when do we really talk about sex? Based on the conversations we usually have at church and small groups, how would anyone know if we were struggling with this?
Abusive, and manipulative, and controlling idols of love have given us a false understanding of what it means to talk candidly about the things that hinder our walk. And works-based salvation models have made this problem worse. But if we will be vulnerable, and honest, before our God and our fellow members of the body, we can experience the freedom and relief that comes from a truly confessional life; marked not by a seeking after meaning and value in love, but by a comfortable recognition of the value we already have to the One who loved us first.
I stated that putting Donald Trump in the White House would legitimize a practice calling itself Christianity that has little, if anything, to do with Christ. That his election would not only encourage the false teachers he surrounded himself with during his campaign, but that it would embolden a host of problems that the church was harboring and failing to address. This past Sunday, the sermon touched on one of the ways I feel that concern has been realized.
The Foreigner Among Us
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 (NASB)
The big question of the sermon was, do we reach out to the people around us with the same love and passion that Paul is here describing? He noted that churches in America have a particular opportunity of world evangelism based on the fact that the world is coming to us, rather than requiring we go to it. And when they come here, we have an opportunity to reach out and build relationships and show the love of Christ to them by sharing, not only the gospel, but our lives with them. But, of course, that relies on us actually welcoming them. So the sermon reminded me of some things.
God of our Sojourning
"Thus has the LORD of hosts said, 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'
Zechariah 7:9-10 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy, God repeatedly makes the case that part of the reason Israel should remember to care for the sojourner among them is that they were, themselves, sojourners in Egypt. It's worth noting that, during this address, Moses isn't speaking to people who were adults in Egypt; this is after the forty years of wandering, when the generation that came from Egypt had died out. This is not a command given to the generation that remembers Egypt. Israel as a body was a sojourner, and is told here that it must never forget that fact.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
There are two grounds on which this argument stands. The first is that, while we are not under the Mosaic law as a people redeemed by grace, the ordinances given to Israel nevertheless point to some understanding of who God is and what His people should look like and we can learn from that; in this particular case, we need not conceptualize the lesson being given, as we may with laws like those banning mixed fabrics, since the reminder to care for the foreigner is given an explanation already.
The second is the nature of that explanation, and the fact that it has not changed. That the heart of God goes out to the foreigner remains equally true as long as God's heart remains the same, and we know that He does not change. And His call to remember the days of sojourning are true for Christians who sojourn in a fallen world just as much as it was true of Israelites who sojourned in Egypt.
How can we be the people of God if we will not act how God calls us to act, and love how He has loved us?
Of the first, it should be noted that our government is not actually set up to operate that way. Whether or not the apostles would have been at the borders of the Roman Empire welcoming travelers is hardly relevant when their relationship to government was fundamentally different from ours. The simplest way to put it is this: in a governmental system designed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, what we task the government with doing is something we are doing. This also comes up in matters of social welfare, the claim that we are called to support the widow and the orphan and help the poor, sure, but we are never called to empower a government to take our money and have them do the supporting.* But this creates a division where one does not exist. When we vote for or against a program or a candidate, we are telling the government how we want it to operate on our behalf. We are directing it to function as our arms in carrying out large-scale operations beyond the scope of what we can do individually. It is no different from giving money and input to our church, or our denomination, about things we want to see happen.
As such, there is no division. If we are going to show God's love to the sojourner among us, we have a direct responsibility to support programs that allow sojourners to exist among us. Our attempts to support programs that restrict or remove sojourners from our midst are nothing less than an act of rebellion to the mission of our God.
The second is personal/national safety and, while literally all available data shows that there is no considerable threat from allowing refugees (or immigrants in general) in, the main focus for us as Christians is that our nation ultimately doesn't matter and our lives are already lost. We owe our nation no more allegiance than we owe Kazakhstan, because, as stated above, this is not our home. We have certain obligations to respect the authority that we live under, but that does not mean we give that authority more power and worth than it deserves. Nor will it be eternal. America will fall someday, whether to mortal forces or to the coming Kingdom of our Lord. What, exactly, are we preserving? And is preserving it more important than obedience to God?
As for personal safety, this is never guaranteed to us. We walk the path of martyrs. It is better for a terrorist to walk into a church and be greeted with the gospel than to allow him to continue in ignorance of the offer of salvation, even if he destroys that church and everyone in it. It is better to lose our lives by opening our doors to the unsaved than to live a long life and stand before God having never carried out His commands because we were more afraid of man than of Him.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28 (NASB)
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus