Friday, April 22, 2005

Sitting on the fence

As a dyed-in-the-wool, red-blooded conservative, I have always valued decisiveness and conviction. When I vote for a politician, I want a politician in office who agrees with my policy, holds most of my opinions, and will do in office what I elected him to do. After all, I figure, I hired him, so I have a right to hold him to a certain standard--mine. If he doesn't meet it, then maybe I won't be so gung ho about supporting him next time around.

But that's politics, not Christianity. Being a follower of Christ is not a political battle to implement my own sincerely held policy opinions, but a relationship to a Person. I don't have to convert people to all of my opinions in order to convert them to the Messiah.

Thus our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ have nothing to do with our sincerely held opinions (or differences thereof), with precious few exceptions. We are put into a relationship with each other, not by what position we hold on some issue, or which side of a doctrinal fence we come down on, but by our joint participation--fellowship--koinonia--with Jesus Christ who redeemed us.

Are there issues that God really doesn't care about? Surely, in all of Christendom, there are. Aren't there fences that men have built that God just doesn't recognize? If so, who are we to think we have the fences built just right? In that sense, then, there's not always something so terribly wrong about being "on the fence" on some of the issues that have been contrived by the consciences and intellects of fallible men. A dose of humility is always in order when we're convinced we're on the right side of a particular fence.

That's not to say that there are no fences around Jesus' pasture. It is certainly fenced in, and has only one Door. I would also acknowledge that all of His sheep don't always remain inside the fence of His pasture. Many stray out of the pasture, either by rejecting the good news that once saved them, or choosing to walk away from a life of love and submission to Jesus' leadership. And yes, some think they are in the pasture but aren't, and still more are convinced that the fences they built are the only ones that exist.

Discerning all of this fencing takes a lot of love, knowledge, and wisdom. And that's the key--discerning, not building. Our job as it relates to the fence that Jesus built around his pasture is to make sure we discern where it is when we get close to it, and to help others get inside of it. We don't need to concern ourselves with building the fence, because that is not our job.

It goes against my human desire that truth come in simple soundbites, but I wonder if it is perfectly OK to remain undecided on certain otherwise-contentious issues. It seems that sometimes it is acceptable (even honorable) to sit contentedly on the fence, holding firm and steadfast to my convictions on the subject--that the issue simply doesn't matter, at least not to our salvation. In that case, maybe I'm not really sitting on the fence at all, but recognizing that there isn't one.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Adoption: pure and faultless religion

Since my wife and I adopted two beautiful girls several years ago into our family, I know something about being an adoptive parent. As a Christian, I know something about being an adopted child. Put the two together, and I know something about love.

What does that have to do with pure and faultless religion?

Think about the greatest command there is, to love. From the perspective of an adoptive parent, it is exciting to equate the love I have for my children (both my biological and adopted kids, of course) to the love God has for his children. I know the love I have for my wife and kids is beyond measure--I would gladly lay down my life to protect them. What an amazing thing to realize that this is exactly what Jesus Christ did for us.

We are sons of God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and are adopted into Him when we become children of the promise; when we are clothed with him.

    Galatians 3:26-29 - You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)
Because of our adoption (or rebirth) into the family of God, He has made us heirs, receiving the full rights of sons:
    Galatians 4:4-7 - But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (NIV)
It is interesting that the New Testament scriptures speak of being born again as identical to being adopted--something I, as an adoptive parent, understand well. There is no difference in the love I have for my biological and adopted children, or the rights I bestow on them. The privileges of one are the privileges of the other.

(What's interesting is that none of my children got to choose which family they were added to. They have to accept that their siblings are their siblings, whether they like it or not. When they disagree with each other about something, what do I say? "You're all brothers and sisters, and there's nothing you can do about it. So get along and love each other.")

So take a look at James' description of "pure and faultless religion:"

    James 1:27 - Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (NIV)
There are many thousands of children that are in need of adoption into stable Christian families. Can you imagine if that entire generation could be loved and cared for in obedience to the command to love and care for the fatherless? I'm not talking about putting them into some group home. I'm talking about individual believers taking the initiative to adopt these kids out of the public agencies, where the most needy children are, into loving Christ-centered families. What an awesome way to share God's love that he showed to us with the next generation.

If you are interested in doing for a needy kid through adoption what God did for you and for me, please consider it prayerfully and don't hesitate to ask me questions about it. I've done it and I've been blessed by it. You can post questions and thoughts on the "Comments" link below, or contact me directly at

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Comments requested: Being a good spouse and parent

I will be leading a discussion on being a good spouse and parent soon, and I thought I'd get feedback from Christians reading this site on the subject.

This is an experiment and we'll see how it goes! I hope you will enjoy reading everyone's input and scriptures on the subject. I know I will.

Please add your two cents on the subject, if you're so inclined using the "Comments" link below and check back to read others' replies.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

Moving the ball upfield

I’m not a big sports fan, but as Paul was fond of using analogies from the popular sports of his day, so it might be helpful for us to use them as well. Let me suggest that if our individual Christianity is a lot like running a race, I think our Christian relationships are a lot like moving the ball upfield in football (or rugby, for you European readers).

How so?

In football, the team on offense is trying to move the ball in one direction, toward the goal line, while the opposing team is doing what they can to stop or impede progress. In our Christian relationships, we have a duty to mutually edify one another in love. Isn't this like moving each person a little closer to the finish line? Shouldn't we try to leave each person we meet in a better place than we found them, spiritually speaking? Shouldn't we also likewise try to avoid "sidelining" someone who is sincere in his desire to get to the goal line?

Please don't confuse this with the soft-pedaled pop-Christian notion of "accepting people where they are." It is one thing to accept a person where he is, it is another to help him forward from where he is. God knows we all need some help forward from where we are, or God wouldn't have ordained this idea of the entire body, from the least to the greatest, mutually edifying itself in love.

Every sincere believer in our Lord Jesus Christ has something to offer in the way of edifying the body. The knowledgeable can share their knowledge, the compassionate their compassion, the loving their love, the zealous their zeal. Let's strive to make every word and every deed advantageous to moving the ball upfield as we seek each other's well being in the grace of God.

It is true that this analogy breaks down at some point, however. After all, some people haven't even found the playing field yet. And we just can't pick someone up and put him where we want him to be, in the time frame we want him to be there. Fortunately, we can't kick him upfield either. But Christians would never try that, right?

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Loveless unity? Impossible.

Think about the fact that it is possible to have loveless agreement on the hotbutton doctrinal issues of the day, but it is impossible to have loveless unity. Sure, it's easier to love someone I agree with. But while I can fail to love a person I agree with, I cannot fail to love a brother in Christ whom I am in unity with. Without love, agreement is meaningless. Love covers a multitude of sins, is patient, longsuffering, forbearing. What are we to be forbearing of, if not disagreements and imperfections in each other?

This should tell us something about the nature of Christian unity. True Christian unity is not built by meetings and debates and programs and workshops intended to produce uniformity of opinion or consensus on a set of dogma, but by relationships, by love expressed toward each other, by the building up of the body in love.

Unity is reached in our common love, not our shared opinions. Agreement and consensus are byproducts of our love for Jesus Christ, his Word, and each other. Love comes first and agreement follows in importance, because if we can't love each other, we will never be in agreement. Let's love one another with the love Jesus Christ showed for us in our imperfection, and maybe, just maybe, we believers will start seeing eye to eye on more things. Let's put it this way; it certainly could do no harm!

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The semantics of immersion

Some good conversation has come up lately about baptism. For the sake of clarity, I'm simply going to refer to it as immersion, because that is what the word meant to the first century believers. Why it has been transliterated in most Bibles rather than translated into English, I don't know. But the meaning of the word is really not in dispute by anyone.

The semantics of Christian immersion is far more divisive than the Biblical treatment of the subject. No doubt some will read a few sentences and either assume I'm one "position" or the other and move on. But I hope all sides of this issue can recognize that we're all on the same side--Jesus Christ's. It's just that like so many areas of theology, men have a way of complicating things and making the Bible less understandable.

    Semantics (n.) - The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form: "We're basically agreed; let's not quibble over semantics."
What everyone should be able to agree on is that believers ought to be immersed once they've confessed faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and decided to live anew for Him. I don't think that is really in dispute, if we stop and think about it. It might even surprise you that much of Christendom would find common ground with that.

Where we get into endless debates over semantics is in the idea that immersion is for the remission of sins. Acts 2:38 aside, it is the semantics of this statement that divides, not the belief of it in its Biblical simplicity. Does immersion save you, or does the grace of God alone through faith alone save you? I can answer yes on all counts, but have no desire to debate the semantics of what I believe and seek to divide believers over it.

Water itself doesn't save anyone, nor do our works--and few would actually argue that they do. But the bottom line for me is, do you believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and have you been immersed in the likeness of His death? If so, welcome to the Kingdom, brother. If not, don't put it off. All examples of new believers in the new testament scriptures obeyed this command immediately.

It wasn't always a controversial, legalistic notion that a believer's immersion is the point in time when the faith conceived in his heart is born again and his sins are washed away. Even the Nicene Creed (although I'm not into using creeds), which is largely accepted by modern Christendom and goes back (in its original form) to 325 A.D., refers to "baptism for the remission of sins."

The rejection of immersion (or at least its role in becoming a reborn believer) was probably an overreaction to groups that preached the need for immersion, but seemed to be trying to "earn" their salvation by legalistic interpretations of scripture and human effort. I emphatically do not believe it is possible to earn our salvation by anything we do for Him. We are saved solely by the grace of God, and we live our lives for Him out of gratefulness for being saved from our sin. That is not Biblically contradictory to the idea that we ought to be immersed.

He loved us while we were yet in sin, and it is that love that draws us to serve Him. We could never make ourselves righteous through our own efforts, and we don't make ourselves righteous in baptism. He does that. In fact, the forgiveness of Christ in immersion is said to be the work of God, not man:

    Colossians 2:11-14 - In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (NIV)
It remains a Biblically indisputable fact that we are clothed with Christ when we are immersed, as a result of our faith, into Him:
    Galatians 3:26-27 - You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (NIV)
He became our righteousness and took away our sin when we submitted to Him in the likeness of his death:
    2 Corinthians 5:17-21 - Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (NIV)

    Romans 6:3-10 - ...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. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin--because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

    Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (NIV)

Some oft-quoted scriptures leave no doubt that the result of immersion mixed with faith and repentance is the forgiveness of our sins:
    Acts 2:38 - Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NIV)

    1 Peter 3:21 - ...and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ... (NIV)

No doubt there are many Christians who reckon the forgiveness of their sins in Christ from a different date than when they were immersed. I don't agree with them on the date of their forgiveness, but as Alexander Campbell said, "The not understanding of this institution [Christian immersion] has prevented many Christians from enjoying its benefits; but the not understanding it does not make them aliens from the kingdom of Jesus." I welcome such people as brothers and hope that someday we may be on the same page about the role of Christian immersion.

People become citizens of the United States for all sorts of reasons. What impels one to do so may not be the overriding reason for another. So it is with Christian immersion. One person simply does it to obey Jesus Christ and doesn't realize the blessing of forgiveness comes at that time. Another recognizes that forgiveness comes at that time and does it for that reason. Both have believed in the Messiah, and have obeyed the command to be immersed. Both have been added to the Lord's body.

The Word of God is said to be the seed that produces the faith that is conceived in our heart:

    Luke 8:11 - “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. (NIV)

    1 Peter 1:23 - For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (NIV)

When faith is produced by the imperishable Word of God, we have been conceived, but we have not yet been born again:
    John 3:1-5 - Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

    In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

    “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!”

    Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (NIV)

We should accept those who have confessed the Jesus Christ of the Bible, repented, and have been immersed. We should also nurture and love those who have been conceived by the Word but who have not yet been born again in water in the likeness of Jesus' death (Romans 6). While they may not technically be fellow citizens of the Kingdom yet (John 3:5), they are clearly on their way to doing so. We should rejoice in what they have accepted and help them see the value in obeying this awesome calling.

If Paul even found common ground with the pagans assembled at Mars Hill, shouldn't we acknowledge the vast terrain of common ground with other professed disciples of the Son of the living God? I believe we can find common ground--faith in our King, Jesus Christ--and work to encourage people in love to be buried in baptism as Christ was buried in the grave. Given Naaman's situation, it's really a small thing to ask.

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Profound subtleties

Are our sins washed away when we're added to the right body, or are we added to the right body when our sins are washed away? Do we meet together for the purpose of taking the Lord's supper, or is edifying one another by remembering and proclaiming Jesus' death the goal for our gathering? Do we go to church, or do we meet with the church? If worship starts at 10:00, when does it end? Should it ever end? What is "worship service" and is it ever described in the New Testament as a time period that includes singing, prayer, a Bible study, the Lord's supper, and a sermon?

There's some silliness in these questions to make a point, but there's some real meat as well. We know the answers to the questions when we ask them in this way, but do we really believe the answers and live them?

Unless we "know it all," Christianity is full of unexplored territory for each of us. Meditating on these questions can give us some real insight into the function of the church--the ekklesia--the Lord's body.

Ask the questions and think about the profound subtleties of your answers in light of the scriptures. You may be surprised what you find.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The blame game

One thing I've been thinking about is where the blame lies for the current state of factionalism in Christianity. As a parent, I don’t tolerate my children blaming someone else for their own unloving actions. “He started it,” I hear. When I follow up on the story, I usually find out a little more than I wanted to know about the ability of children to think like lawyers, and present the facts as skillfully as any defense attorney.

But my children also know the response they will get from me. I always point back to their God-given responsibility for their own behavior, regardless of who “started it.”

Who is alive today that actually caused the divisions around us? When it comes to spearheading a split and causing a division, very few people are actually alive who made things the way they are right now. So the rest of us either have the choice of being caretakers of the factionalism or peacemakers to mend it. And I'm not talking about a mending of an institutional or organizational faction, but a mending of individual relationships with brothers in those factions.

It is a logical fallacy (often called the fallacy of division) to attribute to a part the attributes of the whole. In other words, not all members of a faction or division are factional or divisive. It is possible (and given the long history of most factional debates, likely) that the people alive today meeting under the auspices of those factions are simply clueless to the original issues surrounding the division, and hold no animosity toward "the other side."

It is our job, acting as individuals, to behave in a Christlike manner toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what faction they consider themselves a part of--even if we feel they are mistaken on some doctrinal interpretation. We ought to be out to unite individuals, not organizations. Only when individual Christians are united in their love for the Lord will the organizations they are a part of be reformed or reduced to rubble, and their now-disparate opinions become more and more as one.

There's no point in blaming dead people for the divisions that exist today. We only have ourselves to blame if we are caretakers of their factional debates. If I still have a strong opinion about those old issues, I can breathe a sigh of relief that I can continue to hold my opinion without rejecting my brethren.

    Romans 14:19 - Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. (NKJV)
Amen and amen!

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