Monday, February 28, 2005

CH_CH: What's Missing?

There's a good article entitled "CH__CH: What's Missing?" in the March issue of The Gospel Message. Brother Tom Woody and I undoubtedly share a profound love for assembling together with the Lord's people, and his essay ought to get you fired up for it. The goal, of course, is not simply "attendence," which is worthless by itself. The actual building up, or edifying, of the ekklesia is the true goal we should all aspire to.

Here are a few great snippets from Tom's article that should whet your appetite:

    “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:42) When the Church began on the Day of Pentecost, the first converts to Christ got off on the right foot by doing spiritual things with one another. They realized not only the value of the gospel they had obeyed, but also their need for the fellowship of others of like precious faith. ...

    A television celebrity recently offered a public criticism of Christians and was quoted as saying that religion was ‘a neurological disorder.’ His comments are understandable since men typically look at their own opinions as normal while viewing anyone who thinks differently as having some sort of mental deficiency. ...

    The Lord made us so that we need one another, especially in the Body of Christ. “But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.” (I Corinthians 12:18) If you willfully absent yourselves from fellowship with your brethren, you are not only depriving yourself of the best source of encouragement you could ever have, you also defraud the saints of a true blessing - YOU!

    Full article

(Note: For those of you who meet regularly with other believers in your homes, don't worry--I'm not suggesting that you're "absent" from the assembly because of the location you meet in.)

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Friday, February 25, 2005

Love unexpressed

I was listening to a talk show recently where the discussion was centered on patriotism and love of country. Most were calling in talking about their appreciation for the freedoms they have in America. One person called in to say that, although he considered himself patriotic and felt that he loved his country, he didn't feel the need to express it.

Dennis Prager, the normally mild mannered, intellectual talk show host and author, lost his cool. "What do you mean you love this country, but don't feel the need to express it? Love unexpressed is not love! Can you love your kids without ever expressing it?"

Instantly, I realized that he'd hit on a profound truth from Scripture. Love unexpressed is not really love. The apostle of love wrote pointedly about this:

    1 John 3:16-18 - By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

    My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (NKJV)

By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us. How profound is that? We would have no way of knowing about Jesus' love for us unless He expressed it by laying down His life for us. Since He did, we are drawn to express that love to our brothers.

Apply this to our relationships with our brothers. They can only know our love for them if we express it. In fact, if our love for our brother goes unexpressed in the face of a need, how in the world can we say the love of God is in us? And if this is said of physical needs, how much more applicable is it when we express our love for them to help their spiritual needs? Shouldn't this include edifying them by word, by song, and by example? And how can we do this if we insist on isolating ourselves from them?

It seems to me that if we say we love the brotherhood, but willfully isolate ourselves from them, we are loving in word, but not in deed and in truth. It is love unexpressed, merely an intellectual assent that we've sterilized and put on the shelf to look at. We can do better than that, and I'm encouraged in my deep belief that we will.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Christian friendly fire

In most wars, a good percentage of the casualties comes from "friendly fire," or ammunition that hits the wrong target due mostly to inadequate communication and misunderstandings about the orders given. I was surprised at the start of the current Iraq war that the number of casualties from these kinds of accidents, including overturned trucks and crashed helicopters, seemed to outnumber battlefield casualties from enemy fire.

I suspect that the same is true in our spiritual warfare. How many casualties in the cause of Christ have been sustained by misdirected fire from other believers due to misunderstandings about the orders given from Cammander to soldier? How many people have been turned off to the very simple message of Christ by Christians warring amongst themselves? Too many to count, no doubt.

One of the worst stains on those of us who call ourselves Christians is that much harm and division has been caused in the name of Christ, not by the Commander's orders , but by human misunderstandings of them. Unfortunately, confusion on the battlefield is the mark of humanity. That doesn't negate the positive impact of Christianity on the world, of course. Without the moral and evangelistic nature of Christianity, the world would be in much worse shape. Most charitable work in the world is done in the name of Christ, and when a cup of cold water has been offered in His name, it is as if it has been done to Christ himself.

But when the tank treads hit the sand, I have too often mistakenly turned the turret on my brother rather than combating the true enemy--my own personal weaknesses and failings. That's where the real warfare is to be waged, not against a fellow soldier who is as human I am:

    Romans 14:4 - Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.

Will it be necessary for a brother to converse with another brother that may need correction? Of course. All conversations between brothers are useful if the attitudes going into them are right. Such conversations may even be crucial at times, particularly when a brother is engaging in friendly fire. But unless their wrongs rise to such divisive or immoral levels, or unless they have denied Christ, we would be well advised to keep our turret aimed squarely at the real Enemy while we discuss things out with our brother. Maybe by lending him a hand and being patient with his misunderstandings, rather than firing a shot across the bow, we'll be more productive in helping him on his way.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, or against our brothers and sisters in Christ, but against our own temptations, our own character flaws. That is my battle, and if you are a believer, it is yours. Our true battle is against our bitterness, anger, malice, resentment, and our own desires that go contrary to the law of love that we are under. That's the battlefield we ought to be most engaged upon. The words of a song come to mind:

    as another sun sets on your anger
    the darkness laughs, as the wound destroys
    and it turns your prayers to noise
How true it is that when our own attitudes are not forgiving and Christlike, our prayers are turned to noise. The song goes on:
    this bitterness you hide
    it seeps into your soul
    and it steals your joy
    'til it's all you know
    let it go

    will you forgive?
    will you forget?
    will you live what you know?
    He left his rights
    will you leave yours?
    you won't understand it
    let it go

If our eyes are on Christ and on our own character, that helps us keep our eyes off of our brother's faults in a healthy way. His faults that seemed so obvious before will suddenly become less noticeable as they fade into the background of our own. That's not to say that iron shouldn't sharpen iron, as the proverb goes. But I would say that as we sharpen our swords for battle, let's just remember who we're battling and who we're supposed to be helping so that our prayers don't just become noise.

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Expressing the inexpressible

I am filled with awe that my niece was baptized into Christ this weekend and that she got to share in an exciting day of fellowship, singing, and good will with close to a hundred other believers from all over Southern California. It's amazing how joy in Christ can be so contagious. I tried to explain some of this to my kids the other day, but unfortunately words fall far short. After all, the emotions tied into our faith are inexpressible:
    1 Peter 1:9 - ...even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy... (NIV)
Just because our joy is inexpressible doesn't mean we shouldn't try to express it, though. In fact, I've noticed that attempts to express the inexpressible are often the most effective at communicating our faith in the most genuine terms possible--from the heart.

I would say that it baffles me that some Christians stifle their own joy by thinking that emotions are worthless, except that I've been guilty of it myself. The truth is that God made us with both an intellectual, rational side, and an emotional side. Our response to the good news of Christ will be based on a combination of both. Some people are wired to respond to more of one than the other.

Perhaps some people confuse the cause with the effect or insist that our emotions only belong in one category. Are emotions the cause of our faith, or the effect of it? I would have to say both. One feeds the other. The people listening to Peter's words on the day of Pentecost were cut to the heart when he told them they had crucified the Son of God.

The deeply felt emotions of those first 3,000 souls, along with their newfound intellectual acknowledgement of who Jesus Christ was, caused a movement that has reverberated through all of human history for the last 2,000 years.

Just as we're cut to the heart and moved to action when we recognize how good the good news really is, that new faith also leads to deeper emotions (and intellectual knowledge, by the way) in a reciprocal fashion:

    Acts 16:34 - The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God--he and his whole family. (NIV)
King David wrote extensively about the joy of knowing God:
    Psalm 4:6-7 - ...Many are asking, "Who can show us any good?" Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD. You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. (NIV)
    Psalm 28:7- The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song. (NIV)
How much more joyful should we be now in the Christian era knowing that His Son came from heaven to earth to show the way for us? In fact, our joy and peace should be so full, we should be overflowing with hope:
    Romans 15:13 - May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (NIV)
Always remember to relish your joy in Christ. Remember that no one can steal it without you letting go of it yourself. As one good friend put it, emotions aren't everything, but I've learned that they certainly aren't nothing.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

What is the New Testament?

What is the New Testament? Of course, this question could be tackled from a number of different angles, but I want to look at the most basic one. Does the New Testament consist of the books of Matthew through Revelation? Hold your!

Words and phrases take on new meanings as humans use them. For instance, the word "bible" just means "book." Common usage has given us the term "Bible" in reference to not just any book, but The Book. Interestingly, the Bible never calls itself the "Bible."

In the same way, the "New Testament" never calls itself the "New Testament." The phrase simply means new covenant, such as a contract or will (testament) that is put in force after someone dies:

    Hebrews 9:16 - In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it...(NIV)
Jesus Christ did not leave us without instruction about what his "new testament" is, and nowhere is it said to be what we call the "New Testament." His testament, will, or covenant, is his blood that he shed on the cross for the sins of mankind:
    Matthew 26:28 - For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (KJV)

    Mark 14:24 - And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (KJV)

    Luke 22:20 - Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (KJV)

    1 Corinthians 11:25 - After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. (KJV)

Furthermore, a will is not put into effect until after the person dies. The writer of Hebrews applies this metaphor to the "will," or testament, of Jesus' blood sacrifice:
    Hebrews 9:17 - ...because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (NIV)
The new testament, according to Scripture, is the covenant that was put into effect when Jesus died on the cross, and the resulting relationship we obtain through faith when we are immersed into that death:
    Romans 6:1-5 - What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

    If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (NIV)

So if the collection of writings we usually call the "New Testament" is not really the "New Testament" (as inspired writers used those words), then what are they properly called? Well, if we let inspired authors speak authoritatively for themselves, they are simply referred to as the Scriptures, or writings:
    2 Timothy 3:16 - All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness... (NKJV)

    2 Peter 3:15-16 - ...and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation--as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (NKJV)

The new testament is a covenant relationship that we learn about through the Scriptures. Of course, they are not just any scriptures, but divinely inspired Scriptures that happen to describe the new covenant. No doubt, that led to the commonly accepted usage of these writings being called the New Testament. But if we are going to be accurate, then the "New Testament" they are not. Perhaps thinking accurately about the Scriptures will lead us to better understandings of them.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The deep things of God

What are the deep things of God? Sometimes I lose sight of what's deep and what's not so deep in the scheme of things. Was tithing of mint, rue, and other herbs a good thing for the Pharisees to do? Yes. Were those things the deep things of God? Forget about it.
    Luke 11:42 - "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (NKJV)
If there are deep things of God, then there must be shallower things as well. We should never ignore the shallower things our consciences bind us to, because that would be sin:
    Romans 14:23 - But he who doubts is condemned... (NKJV)
But we also need to refrain from thinking that our shallower ideas are deeper than they really are. This is what the Pharisees did with their rules and regulations about tithing, walking a Sabbath Day's journey, cleanliness, and numerous other issues. These deductions and interpretations of the law, which would have been fine for them to hold themselves to in their personal devotions, ballooned into matters of such importance in their minds that they felt compelled to bind them on everyone else.

Jesus said the Pharisees were overlooking justice and the love of God. These were the weightier matters of the law. It is no different for us in Christ. For us, the greatest commands, to love God and to love our neighbor, stand out as the weightier matters of the law. On these two things hang all the law and prophets, and from these two things we learn every one of the deep things of God.

The fruits of the spirit seem to be the best list of character traits that comprise the deep things of God. These character traits should be ingrained into us, as iron sharpens iron, by our interaction with each other.

    Proverbs 27:17 - As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend. (NKJV)
    Galatians 5:22-25 - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (NKJV)
If we understand the deep things of God, we will not use our Christian liberty to please ourselves, but to serve each another:
    Galatians 5:13-15 - For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! (NKJV)
If we do not understand these deeper things, the works of the flesh, including contention and selfish ambition, will prevail:
    Galatians 5:19-21 - Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NKJV)
We'd better not be passing over the deep things of God. Since we are human, we will always hold opinions that are not entirely accurate or factual. Those opinions will be formed and reformed over our lifetime as we read and study the Word, but we shouldn't confuse deeply reasoned opinions with the deep things of God.

A nugget of truth culled from deep within the scriptures is exciting to discover, and even more exciting to share. But facts, theories, and opinions about them, are useless if we store them in a glass case to be viewed as trophies.

The important truths of scripture are the most life-changing ones that bring our character into alignment with Christ's character. These are the deep things of God, and we can't afford to miss these truths in our mining efforts.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

All or nothing fellowship

Is enjoying the friendship and mutual edification of all of our brothers and sisters in Christ an "all or nothing" proposition? Too many of us seem to think that if we can't approve of all that another brother does, we can have nothing to do with him, "religiously" at least.

This is just not the case, scripturally speaking. How can we change the world for Christ if we don't associate with it, and how can we help reform and refresh the souls of fellow believers if we shun them for disagreeing with us? Mutual edification is a two way street, and is not conditioned upon mutual perfection.

Perfection, in fact, is the enemy of unity, just as perfection, when it comes to many of my projects around the house, is the enemy of completion. Sometimes the desire to have something done perfectly keeps us from doing it at all. And so we demand perfection and full agreement with another believer before we can even consider him a brother, much less show up at his meeting place on occasion to encourage him in his walk.

But the Christian walk is not an all or nothing proposition. We are all at different places in that walk, with different life experiences, religious training, and exposure to the inspired Word. That shouldn't keep us from sharing our mutual faith in the Son of the God of this universe with each other.

A passage in Amos has been commonly misconstrued to mean that we can't walk together with a brother unless we agree with him:

    Amos 3:3 - Can two walk together, except they be agreed? (KJV)
The true meaning is so obvious that I can't believe now that I misread it for so many years. The context has nothing to do with agreement on anything except the fact that they have agreed to walk together. It is a rhetorical question whose answer is self-evident: Can two walk together unless they agree upon a time to do so? Can two go for a walk unless they've made an appointment? I think it's about time we look in our individual lives and start making appointments. Only then will it be possible to walk together and edify each other.

The fact is that we don't live in a perfect world, we live in a fallen world. It is made up of humans who are prone to error--yes, including us Christians. But embracing our brother doesn't equate to embracing his error.

Instead, we should seek to encourage the redeemed wherever they are without insisting on perfection in them before we do so. What is the point of trying to encourage someone who is already perfect? Our mutual lack of perfection gives us an equal, shared need for the grace of God that was shown in the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.

Does that mean we can't express disagreement with Christians who differ from us? Of course not. Our example is that of Paul, who, in the same letter, praised his brothers in Corinth where praise was due:

    1 Corinthians 11:2 - Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. (NKJV)
and "praised them not" in the areas where they needed to be nudged back on track:
    1 Corinthians 11:17-18 - Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. (NKJV)
We should praise our brother for what he does well, and offer a better way in the areas that may need work. God knows, and hopefully we ourselves know, that we all need work in some area or another. Our strengths may work out to fill in their weakness. Unless we really think we are the strongest Christians out there, we better also be open to the possibility that we may be the beneficiaries of their strength.

Don't cringe, shake your head, or clam up when someone you don't necessarily consider to be a "faithful Christian" quotes scripture. Use it as an opportunity to express common ground. Surely if Paul could acknowledge common ground with the pagans gathered on Mars Hill, a place designed for the worship of false gods, we can acknowledge the common ground that exists between believers in Christ who are of different statures in their Christian growth. Be happy that God's word is shared, just as Paul was happy that the gospel was preached, even if by those with bad motives. Work from that point to add to their knowledge. That is non-sectarian, non-denominational Christianity at its best.

If someone says or does something against scripture, look for opportunities to bring them to a better knowledge of the Way. But don't think for a minute that if you don't agree with all that they say you can have nothing to do with them. With that "all or nothing" view of Christian fellowship, we can only have a brotherhood of one. And that's not much of a brotherhood, is it?

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Monday, February 07, 2005

The "best" of religious society

Another good essay off of Living Waters...


    The "Best" of Religious Society
    by Charles Fry

    Every human society seems to have some sort of honored elite (sometimes more honored by themselves than by anyone else), the special in-group, the privileged few, the informed and superior inner circle. There are religious elites, political elites, power elites, wealthy elites, educated elites, and so forth. Labeling select groups like these should not persuade us that elitism is above or beyond any of us though, because the tendency to behave as if some people are better than others flows through every level of society. In every group and sub-group there are those who seem to be more "in" than others, those who are recognizably cool or respectably capable; those who can talk right or move right or buy right, or look right or some way just be "right." And elitism, the sense of superiority/inferiority it cultivates, always divides and excludes, always exalts some at the expense of abasing others.

    Read more

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Firm and flexible

Good essay, Charles.


    Firm and Flexible
    by Charles Fry

    Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (Luke 1:45, NIV, -she was Mary)

    No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Rom 4:20-21, RSV -he was Abraham)

    There are some things that God wants us to be very firm about. He wants us to be very firm in our faith, fully convinced that he is "able to do what he has promised," like Abraham, like Mary. God wants us to take his promises seriously, and make the great decisions of our lives on the basis of those promises. No wavering, even when God's promise seems, at the moment, wild or incredible. James wrote that in our prayers we "must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not think that they will receive anything from the Lord;" (James 1:6-7).

    Of course, faith itself isn't the only thing God wants us to be firm about. He commands his people to be firm about morals, and to hold one another to a high standard of behavior. ...

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Restoring the church

Where exactly is the Church that Jesus died for? All admit that He only died for one Church. It seems that Christians spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one, of the choices we have before us in our neighborhood, is the "right one," the "best one" or "the true one." What you're about to read may come as a shock, but none of the organizations you see around you are the Lord's "One True Church." Nor are any of them, as organizations, a part of it.

That doesn't mean, of course, that you can't find believers in them. But Jesus Christ did not die for a non-profit corporation that has an address, a website, and a tax ID number. Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman:

    John 4:19-21 - The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. (NKJV)
His "One True Church" consists of all of the saved. It is not headed by men or women, and cannot be found in the phone book. God sent His Son to shed his blood on the cross and pay the ultimate price, not to purchase an institution, but to purchase a people--His "called out." Most of the various organizations we know of as churches, denominations, sects, or cults, are simply humans attempting to organize themselves in some way in order to say that they are "the Church." But saying it doesn't make it so.

The people meeting in such organizations are not necessarily evil or even lost. Many may be weak spiritually because of the systems they have adopted, but even that fact does not mean that there are not strong believers meeting within their (or our) walls. In fact, we are definitely supposed to meet frequenty with other believers and live out our faith within a close-knit congregation of believers and elders. But how we think of that congregation is just a little different than how we've been conditioned to think of it due to institutional-Church traditions.

I suggest the following exercise on your next reading through the new testament scriptures. Since the meaning of the word "church" is "the called out," every time you come across it in your reading, replace it with the phrase "the called out." You will get a much different picture of whom (not what) Christ died for when you start to see that he is talking about believers, not an organization.

In this way, it will become clear that Paul was writing to the called out in Galatia, or the called out in Corinth. When he wrote about the church meeting in someone's home, he was writing about the believers meeting there, not the organization located there. Many other subtle connotations will come to light by doing this exercise.

This re-thinking of our usage of the word "church" glaringly points out that we are not meeting together in order to become the "right" organization or to offer a God-ordained "worship service" bookended by an opening and a closing prayer. It does, however, forcedly point out that the assembled believers are there for each other--not to simply assemble together in some prescribed format, but to exhort one another:

    Hebrews 10:24-25 - And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (NKJV)
We are to build each other up in our singing and prayer, encourage each other in the faith, and commune with each other and with Christ at His table. We should do all of this in a non-disorderly manner, but not necessarily a scripted, routine pattern, as modern "churches" have done. Consequently, it's not accidental that the first century Christians met in homes, which are much more conducive to close friendship and "organic" fellowship than a sterile row of pews or folding chairs in an auditorium. There is nothing wrong, per se, with using these expediencies, but they do have an effect on the quality of fellowship that is possible.

Re-thinking this term "church" has also led me to the realization that much of the talk of "restoring the New Testament Church" is misguided. If we think of the Church as the visible institution that Christ died for, we will be focused on restoring outward patterns of "worship service" based on little more than inferential deductions. It is no wonder the 20th century manifestation of the American Restoration Movement became hyperfocused on the outward organizational structure of the church and the look and feel of the assembly rather than the hearts of the Christians that assembled. It's time we learn that the look and feel of the assembly is a means to the end of reforming and encouraging the hearts of the Christians gathered there. It is not an end in itself.

As a result, we ought to be more concerned with restoring first century Christianity than with restoring the first century Church. The two are not the same. The Stone/Campbell reformers of the early 1800s did not call themselves restorationists, but reformers, and that is what we all ought to be.

We should not be so presumptuous to think we are here to restore an organization that was lost. Christ's Kingdom has never been lost, but has lived in the hearts of His people throughout many dark periods of institutionalized-Church history. Instead, we ought to be out to make citizens for the Kingdom, and to reform our own lives and theirs.

    Mark 16:15-16 - And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
Restoring first century practices is a worthy goal, but doing so doesn't bring about the restoration of The One True Church. It is already pristine and doesn't need to be restored. Attempts at reforming lives, however, will bring about the strengthening of Christians everywhere.

Is this only semantics? I don't think so. I think there is something to sink our teeth into here. Attempts at this kind of reformation can only lead to the conversion of a lost world as they see Christ in the collective lives of believers. Let's put our shoulder to the plow and adjust our course, if necessary, toward that end.

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

The greatest command

It occurs to me that if one or two commandments are the greatest, that others are lesser in importance. As difficult as this is to swallow, given our desire to obey all that Jesus commands, He had no problem prioritizing the commandments of God. Granted, the Old Law is the specific context of the Pharisee lawyer's question to Jesus, "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" But Jesus' response was direct:
    Matthew 22:35-40 - One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (NIV)
But the new covenant scriptures bear out that this hasn't changed under the new paradigm. Paul penned a compelling essay on the subject in the 13th chapter of his letter to the Christians in Corinth:
    1 Corinthians 13 - Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

    Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

    And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (NKJV)

Paul again confirms the preeminence of the command to love one another in his letter to the Galatian believers:
    Galatians 5:13 - For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (NIV)
Of course, this shouldn't be interpreted to mean that other commands we find in the scriptures are optional. But I do think it means that all other commands given to immersed believers are to be interpreted in harmony with these greatest commands that God has ever given to man: to love God and to love each other.

I recall a derogatory comment I heard when I was younger about "those soft preachers who only give sermons on love." Now I look back on that comment with shame that I didn't disagree enough to say something. I now understand that I had more to learn about love, which is the very nature of God, than I ever thought possible.

John writes extensively about this "new command" which is really the "greatest command:"

    John 14:34-36 - "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (NIV)

    John 14:15 - "If you love me, you will obey what I command." (NIV)

I have always taken this phrase "what I command" in a broad sense. No doubt, if we love Christ, we'll obey whatever He commands. I certainly use this argument with my kids. But it is clear to me now that the context of this statement is that "what I command" is to "Love each other as I have loved you." Read this from the same author, who writes so passionately about his pet subject:
    John 15:9-17 - "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other." (NIV)
This conclusion is backed up in 1 John:
    1 John 3:21-24 - Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (NIV)
Remember, he's talking to immersed believers here. So these believers, who have already been added to the ekklesia by God, have two preeminent commands: continue believing in Jesus, the Son of God, and love one another. He emphasizes it once again in chapter 4:
    1 John 4:19-21 - We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (NIV)
It's interesting that the apostle of love in John 14 refers to "a new command," then years later, in 1 John, refers to "the message you have heard from the beginning." They are apparently one and the same:
    1 John 3:10-11 - This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. (NIV)
Consider this choice passage, which the beautifully arranged song "The Greatest Command" (Songs of Faith and Praise) comes from:
    1 John 4:7-12 - Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (NIV)
These words are no doubt the greatest and deepest commands we can find in the scriptures. All of the sermons composed around intellectual, brilliantly deduced doctrines from the scriptures pale in comparison to this simple command. My response is one of shame at missing its significance for so many years.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Opinions, opinions, opinions

One of the toughest things to wrap our minds around is distinguishing between opinions and inerrant truth. Until we do that, though, we'll continue on the path of discord, because opinions are responsible for all the division we see in Christendom, not inerrant truth.

It is not possible to force ourselves to hold the same opinions. That is authoritarianism. But we are commanded to be of the same mind one toward another. We are commanded to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are also told to receive our brother, but not to arguments over scruples.

Of course, putting these ideas into practice can be harder than it would seem on the surface, but if we can change our own personal attitudes and have a better understanding of brotherhood, I think we can get there from here.

Here are a few Alexander Campbell quotes on the subject of opinions, taken from an essay in Millennial Harbinger, 1830, pp. 146-147:

    "Men cannot give up their opinions, and, therefore, they never can unite, says one. We do not ask them to give up their opinions. We ask them only not to impose them upon others. Let them hold their opinions; but let them hold them as private property."
    Of a Unitarian: "What is a Unitarian? One who contends that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God. Such a one has denied the faith, and therefore we reject him."
Note that a Unitarian is not rejected on the basis of a difference of opinion, per se, but on the basis that he has rejected the deity of Jesus Christ.
      Of a Trinitarian: "If he will dogmatize and become a factionist, we reject him-not because of his opinions, but because of his attempting to make a faction, or to lord it over God's heritage."
    Again note that he is not rejected because of a difference of opinion, but for making that opinion into a rallying cry for a faction.
        "We will not hearken to those questions which gender strife, nor discuss them at all. If a person says such is his private opinion, let him have it as his private opinion; but lay no stress upon it; and if it be a wrong private opinion, it will die a natural death much sooner than if you attempt to kill it."
      This is one of my favorites. I love the idea of letting wrong opinions die a natural death, provided those wrong opinions aren't advocating immorality, departing from the gospel, denying Biblical authority, or intentionally creating factions and strife.

        More important than what a fallible man thought or wrote, here are some poignant scriptures that bear on the subject of disputes over opinions:

          Proverbs 18:19 - An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city, and disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel. (NIV)

          Proverbs 17:14 - Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. (NIV)

          Romans 14:1 - Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. (NKJV)

          1 Timothy 1:2-5 - And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. (NKJV)

          2 Timothy 2:14-26 - Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity."

          But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.

        There are those who might suggest that simply proposing a concept different than the status quo in any given group is promoting conflict. If this is the case, Timothy and Titus were promoting conflict when they corrected errant teaching in the congregations they visited. Instead, Paul tells Timothy to "pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." We ought be making peace rather than enforcing our opinions and deductions, and that includes my own.

        We also ought to examine our motives to make sure we can answer for them before God. All attitutes and motives must be godly and we ought to be seeking the genuine welfare of God's people. Let that be the case in everything we say and do, and I think disharmony will resolve itself--without contention and strife.

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