Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Church Gone Wrong

He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51).

If Christianity is true, if the church can be so good, why are there so many bad people in the church? We cannot deny that people have done terrible things in the name of Christ. What we can deny, however, is that these people are the product of Christian teaching or that they somehow disprove Christianity.

The first question we should ask about the people who do terrible things in the name of Christ (or any religion) is whether they’re following the teachings of the religion they claim to be part of. Did Christ teach us to force people to “convert” at the threat of death? Did the apostles teach that leaders should steal money and wives and flee to a new city? Do the scriptures say that preachers should accumulate wealth from church members who can barely feed their families?

Do we even have to answer that? When we point out the terrible things people do, the “none of this in the Bible” is at least implicit if not explicit. And if they’re not following Christian teachings, they aren’t an indictment against Christianity.

So where do these people come from?

First, the Church is made up of sinners. I wish it weren’t so, but Christians are capable of doing the same things after they trust in Christ as they were before. In the earliest days of the church, sin quickly made itself known. The church in Corinth had a lot of problems, including sexual immorality “of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1Cor 5:1). Sometimes people give in to greed or lust. Sometimes they are angry or spiteful. We should not be surprised when sinners sin, even though we hope for better from them, and the scriptures demand better. But it’s a process; it doesn’t happen overnight:

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24).

Second, not everyone who claims the name is actually a Christian. Jesus told a parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared” (Matt 13:24-26). The weeds, or “tares” traditionally, are fake believers who, according to Christ, will reside inside the visible Church until the judgment when they will be separated from the true believers (v30).

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Not everyone who claims to be a follower of Christ actually is. The best way to tell who is and isn’t is by their actions: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt 7:20).

Sometimes the person in question is even a leader in a church. A pastor is supposed to be “above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1Tim 3:2-3). Sometimes people become pastors who do not fit this description. Sometimes pastors cease to fit this description. Some become lovers of money; others fall to sexual temptation. Many of them may never have been true believers — perhaps they were simply looking for a career where they could use their talent for speaking (or manipulating people).
wolf in sheep's clothing

Some are even called “false prophets”, wolves in sheep’s clothing (cf, Matt 7:15, Acts 20:29) who are in the church to cause harm. Whether they themselves know it or not, the devil wants them to do as much damage as they can to the church, its reputation, and the cause of Christ.

We cannot allow the evil men do to make us turn our backs on the Church. The Church is the body of Christ — this is how we can be part of Christ’s work. We will never be able to do what Christ wants us to do unless we are together.

Some will say, “I love Jesus but not the Church.” We don’t have that option. As Voddie Baucham has said,

If a man says to me, “Hey, you’re really cool. I’d like to get to know you. But I don’t like your wife,” we’re not going to be friends. She is my bride.

The Church is the Bride of Christ. She may not be perfect, but she is beautiful to Christ, and he is making her into what she ought to be. Our option is to be part of that or not be part of Christ.

As the saying goes, if you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it — you’ll just mess things up. But don’t worry, you won’t find one. All we can do is find a dysfunctional little church family and fit our particular crazy into it as best we can then seek to follow and imitate Christ together.

Image via Pixabay 

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Church Done Right

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1Pet 2:12).

Christians are called to holy living (Matt 5:48, 1Pet 1:16) and to love our enemies (Matt 5:44), our neighbors (Mark 12:31), and our brothers in Christ (John 13:34). Our lives can be a witness to the lost world around us (eg, Matt 5:16, John 13:35). We’re not very good at this (cf, Acts 6:1, 1Cor 6:6), but when we do it right, it is glorious.

What does it mean to love our brothers and sisters in Christ? Scripture expands on the call to love one another with dozens of more specific commands. One person has helpfully cataloged them.1 This is what it looks like to love one another: We honor one another, accept one another, serve one another, forgive one another, encourage one another, submit to one another, and pray for one another among many, many other instructions.

When we love the way Christ has told us to love, the world notices. The Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (332-363) complained, “[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”2

Early Christians were known both for their refusal to abandon “undesirable” newborns and for taking in those of others. They were known for marital fidelity and charity.3 They cared for orphans, widows, and prisoners:

Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. ... These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.4

They also cared for the sick — even plague victims. Shelley tells of one such account:

In the year 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. ... No one knew how to treat the stricken. Nor did most people try. During the first plague, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome for his country estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. ... [But] Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives!5

As Stark points out, countless numbers of those whose lives were saved by Christians undoubtedly became Christians, but besides that the world saw what was happening. As Tertullian put it, the unbelievers could not help but say, “See how they love one another.”4

As the centuries have progressed, Christians have been known for founding orphanages, hospitals, and schools. They have fed the hungry, nursed the sick, and taught people to read — even inventing written languages where there was none.

Sadly, this reputation has not followed Christianity to the present day because this behavior has not. But it can once more. The commands to love each other and our neighbor have not changed. We only have to obey them again.

If you’d like to view Christianity through the eyes of a charitable unbeliever, you might enjoy Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland (not Spider-Man).

1 "The 59 ‘One Another’ Statements in the Bible"
2 Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language
3 Epistle to Diognetus, ch 5
4 Tertullian, Apology, ch. 39
5 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Why Do We Gather?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25).

Why do we need to come together on a weekly basis? There’s only so much weekend, and to be honest people can get kind of annoying. Why can’t we learn about Jesus from books or by listening to sermons online? There are several reasons why the church needs to meet together in the same place.

The first is worship. It’s odd, but I can’t put my finger on a verse that says the church should worship. It’s simply assumed. All throughout the scriptures God’s people worship because that is the natural response to believing what we believe 
 that a holy God took on flesh and died to save us from the consequences of our own sin. That God is worthy of praise. So we gather together to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). It’s not enough to sing at home alone (or with our families) for two reasons: First, worship is corporate. Whenever we see God’s people worshipping, they are doing it together, and as it has been, so it shall always be (cf, Rev 4). Second, when we worship we encourage each other and “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). So worship is both for God and for us.

The second reason we come together is for discipleship. Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). The mission of the Church is to take the gospel to all nations, but the work doesn’t stop there. We’re to make disciples, not just converts, and that takes time. So we bring converts to the church where they become disciples. It’s done a little at a time, week after week. We can quit going to church when we’re just like Jesus. Of course, Jesus probably wouldn’t miss church.

And, thirdly, that discipleship is best done by the church body, not just one person, because the Spirit has given different believers different gifts “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:12-13). We are to build each other up, not just sit and listen to one person doing all the work. As important as good sermons are, that is not all of discipleship. Discipleship happens when we learn from each other, encourage each other, and, yes, irritate each other. Learning to love your brother or sister in Christ even when it’s hard is an important part of discipleship.

The fourth reason we come together is for fellowship, to support each other. We’re not just in church to learn about the Bible. Living for Christ in a fallen world is difficult. Living as “aliens and strangers” (1Pet 2:11), trying to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:14-19) is hard, confusing, and perplexing. And life in this world is harder on some than on others. So we come together in order to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1Thes 5:11) and to meet each other’s material needs (cf, 1John 3:17, Acts 4:32-37, 11:29). Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Cor 12:26). “While hurt is reduced, joy is increased by being shared. We are to encourage and sympathize with each other.”1

We are the Church wherever we are, but the body needs to come together to be what it was meant to be. So “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25).

I am only able to barely scratch the surface on the topic of worship. I recommend the chapter “Worship” in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

1 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine

Image via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

God is Not Stingy

I enjoy giving my kids things I think they'll like. I'll bet you do, too.

I enjoy the look on their faces when they're wowed, but even when I don't get that, I know when I've found something they really like. I want them to have fun, to have nice things, to find things they didn't know they'd like. It truly is more blessed to give than receive. I would totally rather give them something than have them give me something — and not just because they're not good at guessing what I'll like.

But I don't give them everything I see I think they'll like. I don't give them everything they ask for. Sometimes I hold back because too much generosity can make them ungrateful. Sometimes I think this idea, though fun, won't be good for them. Sometimes I might be willing to give something to one but not the other — for instance, giving your in-door child a new video game system might just be a new excuse to stay inside and never see the sun, whereas the out-door child wouldn't overuse it. And sometimes it's just good for them to wait. "Yeah, that's a great idea. I'll get that for her birthday in six months."

And as much as I love giving them things they enjoy, sometimes I have to give them things I know they won't enjoy. They need their shots. They need a balanced diet. They need chores. They need discipline.

JI Packer wrote, "'Father' is the Christian name for God." It's not just a name. It's what God is to us. He has adopted us into his family. We're not servants or even friends but sons and daughters. God is a real Father to us, and he is a good Father.

Sometimes we're tempted to think that God is stingy with us. We have to reject that temptation. Our Father is a generous God. He has "lavished" his grace on us in forgiving our sins (Eph 1:7-8). He "lavished" his love on us in adopting us as his children (1John 3:1). And now, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom 8:32). He's already given us his Son. Why would he withhold lesser gifts?

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:9-11).

And yet God doesn't always give us what we ask for. But he is still good. He knows what we need and which of our wants aren't good for us. He knows when waiting and struggling will build character. He knows what it will take to shape us into the image of Christ.

It's tempting to think God is stingy when our prayers go unanswered. God has shown us that he is good. We know he is wise. Can we make the conscious decision to trust him when things don't go our way?