Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Stuck in the Muck

"No good deed goes unpunished."

flat tire
I don't know if you've said it, but you've felt it, as I have.

You're helping someone out by paying to fill up their car. As they start to roll away from the pump POP. If they had money, you wouldn't be filling their tank. Do you wish them luck and go on your merry way? Of course not. Now you're paying to fix their tire.

Or you helped someone file their taxes. Turns out you made a little typo. And they're getting audited.

Or maybe someone suggests your Bible study group clean the house of an older church member who's been ill. You arrive and realize that no one has cleaned that house for a long, long time. Do you turn around and leave? No, not unless you're going to the store for more bleach. Lots of bleach.

Sometimes helping someone turns out to be far more costly, time consuming, or just ... hard than you'd expected. Once you're in, you know you can't walk away.

That's when it's tempting to have your own little pity party. "Woe is me. Why did I get myself into this? No good deed goes unpunished. Why doesn't God keep these things from happening when I was trying to help?"

Couldn't God have kept them from getting a flat tire? Couldn't he have kept the government from selecting their return? Couldn't God move some rich church member to send in a professional cleaning crew with industrial disinfectants ... or napalm?

But he doesn't do that. Instead he seems to want us to get down into the muck with people. He seems to want it to hurt a little to help.

It's almost like he wants us to experience a little of what Jesus went through. Helping can be costly, but it rarely costs us everything. God wants us to be obediant, but he usually doesn't expect us to be "obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil 2:8).

So "consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb 12:3).

And you might want to burn those clothes after you finish cleaning that house.

Image via Pixabay

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Pictures of the Church

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body...” (1Cor 12:13).

We can better understand the Church by looking, once again, at pictures used by the scriptures.

The Body of Christ (eg, 1Cor 12:12-27, Eph 4:1-16, Rom 12:3-8)
Christ has left the world, and yet Christ’s body is still in the world continuing his work. The Church is his body, with Christ as the head and, like Christ’s metaphor of the vine and branches (John 15:1-17), our life flows from him. The Church is the expression of Christ in the world today; they see him only to the extent that we show him to them.

Not only are we connected to him, we are connected to each other. The body has different parts that depend on each other. The body needs ears and eyes, a heart and a liver, lungs and bowels and muscles. If one part is unhealthy, the body is unhealthy.

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1Cor 12:17-19). God has made his church, like the world, to be full of variety. Believers are given different spiritual gifts for various tasks, and all are necessary. The body is healthy only when all the parts are present and functioning properly. An unchurched believer is like a liver sitting on a table by itself — both the organ and the body will suffer because they are separated.

A Building and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (eg, Eph 2:20-22, 1Pet 2:5, 1Cor 3:16)
stone wall
Believers are “living stones” being “built into a spiritual house” (1Pet 2:5) on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). This building is a temple of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:21-22, 1Cor 3:16) and therefore holy to God.

Once again, the picture is of believers being interconnected. A Christian who is not part of a church is leaving a hole in the wall, and that believer is just a stone serving no purpose rather than a part of the temple of the Holy Spirit. Just as in a wall one stone is held up by those below it, we hold each other up in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The missing stone is being held up by no one and holds no one up.

The foundation of the apostles and prophets is their teaching in the scriptures. That is what we build the Church on, with Christ as the standard and model. It is not wrong to acknowledge the learning the world has gained through God’s common grace, but we must remind ourselves that not everything modern humans think they know is true and remind ourselves that we can only have one foundation. Churches must be cautious in the use of the world’s “knowledge.”

Flock of Sheep (eg, 1Pet 5:1-4, Acts 20:28-30, Heb 13:20-21)
God calls his people “sheep” a lot. It’s not a compliment. Sure they’re cute, and they were valuable, but they are powerfully stupid and almost completely helpless. Sheep need a shepherd. God’s people need a shepherd.

We are weak and helpless sheep, and our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1Pet 5:8). What’s more, “savage wolves” will be among the flock, trying to destroy God’s Church from within (Matt 7:15, Acts 20:28-30). God gave his church shepherds, the pastors who are supposed to guide us and protect us. Sadly, sometimes pastors turn out to be wolves, but that only shows how dangerous the world is and our need for good shepherds. And all the shepherds serve under the Good Shepherd (Heb 13:20-21) who will ultimately keep his flock safe.

The Family of God (eg, 1Tim 5:1-2, 2Cor 6:18)
The Church is called a family, with God 
 as we said before  as our Father. Believers are to act like brothers and sisters in a family. Which means we will squabble and fight, and we won’t always like each other, but we need to love each other and act like we love each other. We are to treat each other with grace and make sure that our family’s needs are met. And this love when done right will be a testimony to the world about Christ (John 13:35, 17:23).

The Bride of Christ (eg, Eph 5:22-33, Rev 19-22)
Finally, the Church, collectively, is the Bride of Christ. This speaks to Christ’s affection for his Church and his care for her. “...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27). And in line with the tradition of the time, Christ is preparing a home for his bride. One day he will come to get her and take her to their new home. But that is a topic for another time.

Together these pictures show that the Church is a collective, an interdependent people who need the leadership Christ gives through his chosen leaders to make her way and to make a difference in this fallen world.

Image via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

What is the Church?

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15b-16).
old country church

When Christ said he’d build his “church” in Matt 16:18, the Greek word used, ekklesia, means “called out ones. “It was also used of an assembly; so the idea is that the church is a special assembly of people called out from the world to become part of God’s family”1 and “set apart for a holy task.”2 The English word “church” derives from the Greek kyriakon which “refers to those who are possessed or owned by the kyrios, or Lord.”2

The thing is, before Christ created his Church, God already had an assembly, a holy people — the Jews. In Jewish thought, all the world was divided into two peoples — Jews and everyone else, called Gentiles. Christ’s Church was to take from the Jews and from the Gentiles to make a new people, a people now called Christians.

When the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe ... in the holy catholic Church”, it is not saying that we are all Roman Catholics. “Catholic” means universal. (Yes, that means “Roman Catholic” is a bit of an oxymoron.) The creed is saying there is one universal assembly, one people, set apart to God.

Everyone who is called to Jesus is called to be part of that assembly. John Stott calls unchurched Christians a “grotesque anomaly” and says, “The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. ... Indeed, Christ died for us not only ‘to redeem us from all wickedness’ but also to ‘purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:14).”3

But not everyone who attends church is part of the Church. There will always be church members who are not true believers, and there are a few true believers who for good reason cannot be part of a church. Historically we have referred to the “visible Church” (those who appear to be Christians) and the “invisible Church” (those who actually are).

What is the difference between the Church and a church? There is one holy Church, but it meets in many places at many times in local expressions called churches. So is every gathering of Christians a church? No. There are parachurch organizations created for charity or missions. There are gatherings of believers to study the scriptures or fellowship. These aren’t churches.

A church must, first of all, be trying to follow Christ as laid out in the scriptures. If a group is no more bound to the scriptures than they are to the writings of Thoreau or Emerson, they are not following Christ. Which means not every group that claims to be a church truly is one.

Second, even if they are Christians, they must be trying to be a church. This includes baptism and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. “So, functionally, a church is a group of Christians who believe and proclaim the Bible, and intend to function as a church.”4

Why did Christ create his Church? We are part of his work to establish the kingdom of God. “[O]ur job is to help establish the rule of God in the hearts of people and bring the values and priorities of God’s kingdom to bear on every aspect of our culture.”1 We are here to represent God to the people around us and to try to bring them into his kingdom. This is something the forces of darkness do not want. They will oppose us at every turn. But Christ has promised, the gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matt 16:18).

1 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On
2 RC Sproul, Everyone's a Theologian
3 John RW Stott, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor
4 Rick Cornish, 5 Minute Theologian

Image via Pexels

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Introduction to Ecclesiology

...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).

Christianity is a team sport.

I think basketball is a good analogy. Unlike football, you can play a reasonable imitation of a proper basketball game one-on-one. But you cannot play one-on-five against a team. Trying to do battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil by yourself is like trying to play one-on-five basketball against a professional team: You simply cannot win. You need a team. You need the Church.

What is the Church? The Church is not a building. And the Church is not an event. What happens on Sunday morning is a meeting of the Church.

The Church is a community. It is the assembly of the people God has called to himself. There is one Church, and there are many, many local gatherings of the people of God called churches.

What is the Church supposed to be? Why do we gather? How are we supposed to help each other in our war against the enemy? Why is the church sometimes not very attractive? These are the kinds of questions we’ll consider as we look at the Doctrine of the Church.

Image via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Help for Keeping the Faith in College

Surviving Religion 101
Like many parents, I get a bit anxious about what will happen to my kids' faith when they go to college. We hear the stories of professors who make it their goal to tear down the religious beliefs of their students, and then there's the atheist roommate and the "spiritual but not religious" suitemate, not to mention the friends of various religions and lifestyles they'll meet. Given how many walk away from the faith in college (though that often begins in high school or before), these aren't empty fears. So when I saw I could get a (free) review copy of Michael Kruger's new Surviving Religion 101, I had to snatch it up. (Note to the reader, the title should be read as Surviving [Religion 101] not [Surviving Religion] 101.)

Kruger says he hopes his book "provides an intellectual pathway for Christian students so that they can keep their faith without sacrificing their intellectual integrity.” No one book can answer every question that a person may have, and this one certainly doesn't, but this "volume is designed to be [the] first step, an initial orientation for Christian students about the challenges they face and (hopefully) a reason for them to be confident that there are answers to their questions, even if they don’t have them yet.”

Again, it doesn't cover every possible objection skeptics raise, but it does answer many, and it covers some specific challenges and doubts college students face, such as "I'm worried about this, can I survive?" and "My professors are really smart; isn't it more likely they're right and I'm wrong?" These were all very good. Then it covers objections to Christian exclusivism ("How can we say Christianity is the only right religion?"), homosexuality, hell, evil and suffering, "science explains away God", and various objections to the Bible. Again, they're all well done, but nothing that hasn't been done just as well elsewhere, though I particularly enjoyed his response to "tolerance" and moral relativism.

The book is comforting in places, assuring readers, for example, that non-Christian professors aren't usually evil and your fellow students aren't generally out to get you. But, he reminds us, we shouldn't have "naive overconfidence," either. And, though it may surprise us, "there’s a certain spiritual depth, and a certain spiritual strength, that we will never reach without going through an intense season of doubting and struggle.”

Who is this book for? It's not written to convince the unbeliever but to shore up the confidence of the believer whose faith is being assaulted. This is not a good choice for an unbeliever, even though it may contain answers to their questions. It's written for college students; I don't know if it would be well-received by teens not going to college, even though they'll meet most of these objections in modern society.

Also, it's written as a series of letters to the author's daughter Emma. It creates a conversational tone, keeping the book from feeling too much like a lecture, but I don't know if that format will turn off some readers.

So the book is not unique, and it's not for everyone, but it does what it does well. Churches could do worse than hand a copy of this to every student heading off to college. (Let's be honest, most do much worse — nothing.)