Monday, December 25, 2006

Twas the Night Before Christmas...

Watching late night TV on Christmas Eve is an interesting experience. One can find a spiritual smorgasbord as you surf the channels. As I jumped from program to program, I found a Roman Catholic Mass, a Christmas Eve service from a main-line denomination, a Christmas Eve service from a Baptist church, and an old local network production which included engaging conversation between Santa and a puppet wearing a bakers hat. Interesting indeed.

As I viewed segments of each of these programs, I was more and more disheartened by the ironic absence of a straightforward gospel message in any of these venues. Of course, I did not expect it from the Roman Catholic mass. Their presentation was quite consistent with their stated theological positions. The focus was the eucharist in which, according to Rome, the elements of bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. These elements then become a means of receiving saving grace. The priest offered a pre-communion prayer asking God to help the communicants merit the grace they would receive. Nothing unusual here. It was a very sacramental view of salvation.

The main-line denominational service included traditional carols and musical presentations interspersed with written prayers and a sermon. The pipe organ was beautiful. The sermon was sincere and well-presented. Yet, it lacked any substantive exposition of the Christmas story. It mentioned homelessness as an issue the church should help resolve (no argument here). It assumed faith in God and Christ as necessary but offered no clear understanding of how one might enter into such faith. It was a nice liturgical candlelight service predicated on the "we are all God’s children" sentiment. Again, no surprises here.

When I happened onto the Baptist service, I thought to myself, "OK, now I’ll get to hear some clear biblical teaching on the meaning of Christmas." Boy was I disappointed. The broadcast began with the children’s choir singing Jingle Bell Rock complete with a "kickin" guitar solo. There was some Winter Wonderland thrown in also. A few contemporary Christian Christmas songs followed. All of this was taking place on a lighted multi-level stage with large snowflakes and ornaments hanging all around.

I switched channels to find Santa and the puppet guy with the baker’s hat. So, I turned back to the Baptists to see what was happening. What I found was a lady reading the entire Dr. Seuss story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. She had cool monitors behind her that changed shades of green as she read the whole thing. Now, here is the irony. I turned back to Santa to find him reading the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke to the puppet and the boys and girls in TV land. Santa then said to the viewers, "Now children, this is the real Christmas story straight from the Holy Bible. This is why boys and girls around the world celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus." Imagine my angst at finding myself in a situation in which Santa Claus was giving me more Bible than the Baptists. Unfortunately, Dr. Seuss got more run from the Baptists than Matthew or Luke.

The thing that just floors me as I reflect on my wacky Christmas Eve viewing experience is that I found more biblical focus from the main-line church and the local network Santa than from an evangelical church. That evangelical church was the place where I should have found a clear, biblical gospel presentation of the meaning of Christ’s birth. Yet, they shrouded the Christmas Story in pop culture and glitzy production values.

Twas the night before Christmas, the world’s in a lurch
No clear gospel message, not even in church.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Just In Time for Christmas: The Secret Lives of Jesus

The National Geographic Channel has produced a special called The Secret Lives of Jesus which aired Sunday night. This program purposes to reveal the alternative perspectives on Jesus which come from other "gospels" such as the Gospel of Thomas. This program reveals to us a young Jesus who uses his supernatural powers to harm those who annoy him. It shows us an adult Jesus who has a special relationship with Mary Magdalene. It presents an alternative crucifixion story in which Jesus takes off his crown of thorns and puts it on the head of Joseph of Arimathea who proceeds to carry the cross to Golgotha where he, not Jesus, is then executed. Jesus steps into the crowd and laughs while Joseph carries the cross. Jesus goes on to live a full life.

This whole scenario is wrong on several points. First, it is a not-so-veiled attempt to discredit the traditional, biblical understanding of Jesus. To air this sort of shockumentary in the middle of the Christmas season is an obvious cheap shot. Of course, the producers tell us it was all done in the spirit of exploration and discovering the alternative versions of the Christ story.

Second, this program is based on documents which date well after the events of Jesus' life and death. Thes so-called gospels were gnostic documents which presented an alternative view of Jesus based on their dualistic philosophy. Unlike the canonical gospels, none of these alternative gospels were written in the first century by eyewitnesses of the actual events. The gnostic gospels were second and third century documents which sometimes used the names of known Christian figures (like Thomas) to lend credibility to them. The program is predicated on documents that New Testament scholars would repudiate.

Third, such programs present a double standard all too common among those who lean to the left. Jesus bashing has become a favorite passtime of many liberal scholars and TV producers. But imagine what would happen if a conservative group produced a documentary presenting the secret lives of Muhammed. It would start a riot. Once again it appears that the only ideology exempted from the generous tolerance ethic of society is conservative Christianity.

Jesus had no secret lives. As Paul said to King Agrippa when declaring the gospel to him, "For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner (Acts 26:26)." The story of Jesus is not a hidden story. It is out in the open. The fact that the gospel of Christ's life, death, and resurrection ever "got off the ground" so to speak, is owing to the eyewitness accounts and verifiable historicity of the story.

The truth is that the very public life, death, and resurrection of Jesus occurred to free us from the shame of our own secret lives. For that, we should be forever grateful.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Encouraging Words from SBC Leaders

There is a great deal of controversy swirling among Southern Baptists over various issues as we come to the close of 2006. Issues like baptism, private prayer languages, and Calvinism have been points of contention among Southern Baptists. Of course, I have my personal convictions on all these issues as do others. My biggest disappointment in the course of these debates has been that some have distorted history, mischaracterized the positions with which they disagree, and driven the debate with emotionally charged rhetoric rather than historical and theological facts. It is always easy to burn a straw man.

In the midst of this confusion there have been some promising words communicated lately by two well-respected theologians in the SBC fold. I encourage you to read these articles which, in my opinion, represent voices of balance in what has been in many cases a very imbalanced discussion of important issues related to the SBC identity. My hope is that in the future we will see more level-headed leadership such as these two men provide.

Click on the links below to access the pieces mentioned above.

Dr. Danny Akin

Dr. David Dockery

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Don't Be Deceived by Success

Over at the T4G blog, Mark Dever has written a brief but soul-searching post on deceptive prosperity. In this post, Dever warns that there are times when evident prosperity may have a deceptive effect on us which blinds us or dulls our senses to our sin. How true this is! We are prone to think that if we are experiencing a measure of "success" in our lives, that this is somehow evidence of God's smile upon us. We rationalize, "If I am wrong, why is God blessing me so much?"

Prosperity is not the imprimatur of God's blessing. Psalm 37 tells us that the wicked often seem to prosper by human standards though all the while they stand under God's judgment. Their success is apparent and will come to a certain end. Some Christians and churches have imbibed the spirit of pragmatism for so long that it is easy for us to equate "success" with "blessing." If what I am doing is bringing a desired result, then my life must be right and blessed. This kind of reasoning will often allow us to continue in sin with even more vigor because we think that God is blesssing us.

Even prosperity in "spiritual" things or "ministry" can take this path. Just because a church experiences numerical growth in attendance and giving doesn't necessarily mean that church is pursuing a ministry path that God blesses. Just because a church leads all the statistical categories of its denomination doesn't necessarily mean that church is blessed by God. By all means we pray for growth and health in our churches. Yet, we must be careful to evaluate our lives and our ministries by biblical standards and not just outward prosperity.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wierd Takes on Men's and Women's Ministries

I came across two articles today which alerted readers to some extreme approaches to men's and women's ministries. Both of these articles demonstrate how imbalanced understandings of biblical concepts result in wierd approaches to "ministry." In both cases, biblical concepts are taken out their context and whole systems of male and female spirituality are built upon them.

Both of these articles also point out the all-too-common phenomenon of making God and holy things too familiar. When the biblical concept of intimacy with God is divorced from the biblical concept of fearing the Lord, the result is always a distortion of truth. On the one hand, it becomes a mushy sort of sentimentalism in which people can sing the latest love song and substitute Jesus for their significant other. On the other hand, it can end up being a crude, over-the-top bravado which demeans others and uses manhood as an excuse.

What the church needs is men and women who understand their God-given and unique gifts, roles, and responsibilities in the context of what the Bible truly teaches. Blessed is the church which has men and women who embrace femininity and masculinity in their proper contexts.

Interesting Series of Posts on Pulpit Magazine

John MacArthur is providing a preview of his upcoming book The Truth War on the Pulpit Magazine blog here. I encourage you to take advantage of these posts to get a glimpse of this important new book. In addition, there is a series of posts on the emerging church which will provide more light on this dangerous movement.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Information on Emerging Church Concerns

Brett Kunkle of Stand to Reason ministries has written a concise paper regarding the Emerging Church which will be helpful to those seeking a summary of issues. The paper is well-documented and was presented at the Evangelical Theological Society. I encourage you to read it here.

The vanguard of this movement (McLaren, Burke, Jones, Pagitt) have said and written things that indicate this movement is drifting toward heresy (and in some cases is already there). Kunkle's article provides clear, documented evidence of this along with his analysis. I will offer a few of my personal reflections after reading the article.

It appears to me that the leaders of the Emergent Church are using terms which Christians have understood as defined by the historic creeds and confessions of the church (not to mention the Bible itself), but they are filling these terms with radically different meanings. As Tony Jones stated in a seminar, emergents view theology as fluid, local, and temporary. In other words, theology is always moving, always changing, and cannot be absolutely defined for all people of all places in all times. Doug Pagitt said that theology is always "our current best guess." This approach to theology is affirmed in Pagitt's statement that "the Trinity is not wrong, but it may not be the only way to understand God."

This theological fluidity (confusion seems like a better term to me) is the result of the Emerging understanding of truth itself. Pagitt says, "When we talk about truth, we’re really considering two concepts: reality (the way things are) and truth (a person’s perspective of that reality.)…No one has access to all reality in such a way that he can conclusively call his experience and understanding the truth." Here is where the root problem of Emerging theology is located. Note that reality and truth are two separate issues for them. Truth is what you believe about reality, and reality is the way things really are. Here is where we feel the pulse of postmodernism in the heartbeat of Emerging theology. All of this adds up to an aversion to certainty and an embrace of uncertainty. There can be no dogmatism about anything. Everything is "on the table" and negotiable.

According to Emergent, the intersection of culture and theology creates a situation in which theology is always changing. As new discoveries are made in various disciplines, we must adjust and even change our theological views. This leads to "re-imagining" our theological concepts. One of the controversial personalities in Emergent is Spencer Burke. In his book, A Heretics Guide to Eternity, Burke writes, "At this point in our history, I believe God is to be questioned as much as obeyed, created again and not simply worshipped. Our views must be continually revised, reconsidered, and debated." He goes on to say, "I am not merely seeking to put a new spin on old beliefs; I am actually declaring that there are new ways of believing when it comes to the Christian story."

These statements are shocking to me. I am left with no choice but to believe the title of this book is an apt description of its author. The frightening thing is that these statements are simply the outcome of putting the guiding principles of Emerging theology into practice. The relativization of truth can only lead to this kind of theological fog.

Friday, November 17, 2006

When to Leave a Church

John MacArthur has written a helpful post on the subject of leaving your church over at Pulpit Live. This is an important issue. Just this week I was discussing it with a staff member at my own church. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. MacArthur that leaving ones church is not something to do lightly. Yet, there are times when it is not only desirable, but necessary for the sake of the gospel.

I think many people leave a church for the wrong reasons. My observation is that many people leave their church over unresolved personal issues rather than momentous doctrinal or leadership issues. Hurt feelings, different preferences over secondary issues, and personality conflicts often become the grounds upon which people exit the church. Sometimes it is just rank consumerism. People are looking for a church that has a better building, more programs, and convenient parking.

In my experience, one of the contributing factors to the exit of disgruntled members is the absence of our ability to resolve conflicts in a biblical fashion. A church member gets upset with a staff member or a fellow church member. Words are said and feelings get hurt. Sometimes the rumor mill gets cranked up. Instead of going to the person with whom they are upset and seeking to resolve the issues and restore the relationship, people leave in a huff or silently disappear without a word. There are also occasions when the offended party does seek to resolve the issues but the other person will not cooperate.

My angst in all of this is that people who are known by the gospel ought to be able to resolve issues and restore relationships. It is not a positive thing when Christians are known for their inability to get along with each other. People known by the gospel ought to have the spiritual maturity and humility to sit down and talk to each other. They ought to have the spiritual sensitivity to refrain from allowing personal convictions on minor issues to create a major separation between them.

Having said this, there are certainly occasions when a person should leave a church. Such occasions would be when there is gross theological error or outright heresy, when the church does not take spiritual leadership and accountability seriously, when you find yourself so out of step with the direction of the church that your presence there becomes a flashpoint for conflict. Even in these instances, leaving should probably not be the first response but the last resort.

Sometimes God leads people to a different church for reasons which have nothing to do with theological error or personal conflict. Sometimes He simply wants a person to move to a different fellowship because there is a need for that person in a particular ministry. For whatever reason, leaving a church should be something a person does prayerfully and thoughtfully with a view to the glory of God.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Candy Land Christianity

Tim Challies has written a post today on the new board game based on Joel Osteen's book Your Best Life Now. As I read Challies' post, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. As if the book itself was not bad enough, now you can play a game to reinforce the new seven step program of the kinder, gentler version of Word of Faith theology. This is a marketing ploy even Bruce Wilkinson didn't use (I don't recall a Prayer of Jabez game). I haven't been following the product lines generated by Osteen's book. Yet, if it follows suit with other publishing fads, there will be Your Best Life Now for men, women, teens, children, an audio book, keychains, mugs, pens, t-shirts, christmas tree ornaments, golf balls, Bible covers, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Let's face it, a large segment of the "evangelical" church has become more foam than root beer. There is a glaring lack of biblical and theological substance in much of the popular literature of the movement. There is a dearth of discernment evidenced by the shallowness which characterizes much of the church today. I know that sounds arrogant. I don't intend it to be. I am not suggesting that me or my church is immune to this shallowness. Yet, the fact that Mr. Osteen could get on the best-seller list and fill the Compaq Center with this sort of preaching and writing is "exhibit A" in my case.

When one compares this kind of "gospel" and "Christian life" with that of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles, the difference is clear. Why do we not see any "Take Up Your Cross" board games? Why no "Life and Ministry of Paul" board game complete with imprisonments, hunger, shipwreck, stoning, beating, assassination attempts, and ultimately martyrdom? The truth is that the Christian life is not like Candy Land.

The reason why the Osteen gospel is so popular is because it appeals to our fleshly nature. Our flesh will readily embrace a gospel that is about "winning" and "achieving." We have no trouble swallowing a gospel that baptizes our desire for material possessions and prestige and throws a little Bible in to make it go down easy. But who wants a gospel that demands me to disown myself and follow Jesus to the cross? Who wants a gospel that calls me to give away not just a percentage of my income but my whole life for the sake of Jesus? That kind of gospel will get you killed. Just ask Paul and Peter. The Osteen gospel is a "Be All You Can Be" self help, self-serving gospel with just enough Jesus pasted on it to make it sound spiritual. But, make no mistake about it, it is not the gospel of the New Testament.

There is a problem with a gospel that feeds the impulses that the New Testament tells me to fight. I am not supposed to feed my impulse for money and material things. I am not supposed to feed my desire to feel like the world revolves around me. I am not supposed to feed my hunger for self-significance. I am not supposed to find my joy in winning and achieving. I am supposed to find my joy in Jesus Christ. I wonder if the Osteens of the world and their followers can say with Paul:

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

The Candy Land Christian loves verse 13 - I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. But he or she interprets this verse totally out of context. The Candy Land Christian sees the "all things" only in terms of prosperity, abundance, and being filled. The question is does Christ strengthen you to go hungry? Does He strengthen you to do without? Paul wasn't saying Jesus always made sure he had a full stomach and a full pocketbook. Paul was saying that because He had Jesus, he could be hungry and do without and be OK with it. Jesus strengthened him not just in times of plenty but also in times of want.

The truth is that to lose oneself for the sake of Christ is the highest gain. To seek ultimate joy in preserving oneself is to lose all. Jesus said that. I suppose my problem is not that we have difficulty in embracing that kind of gospel. I expect that from fallen nature. My problem is that we have abandoned that narrow-road gospel for one which sounds like billboards lining the broad road to destruction.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Humility: An Essential Quality for Avoiding a Downfall

A friend recently asked me how the Ted Haggard scandal applied to the doctrine of total depravity. It was an insightful question. If we learn anything from the Haggard scandal it ought to be that we all battle depravity. The moment we begin to take that depravity for granted, we become vulnerable to a scandal of our own.

The Bible warns us against spiritual pride. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is warning the Corinthians about the dangers of idolatry. He reminds them of the experience of Israel in the wilderness. They experienced the presence and provision of God in miraculous ways. However, when they became lax and indulged in immorality and idolatry, God judged them severely. Paul then tells the Corinthians to be careful. He says, "Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:15)." In the context of discipline and accountability, Paul gives the Galatian church a model to follow. He tells them in Galatians 6:1, "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted." This is a powerful call for humility.

Puritan John Flavel wrote, "They that know God will be humble, and they that know themselves cannot be proud." We need to know God. We need also to know ourselves. The moment we start feeling above the pull of depravity, we are on dangerous ground. This is especially important for pastors who spend so much time immersed in "spiritual things." They study the Bible, they pray, they preach, they counsel others on important life issues, they are sought out as spiritual authorities by members of their congregations. This can be heady stuff. It is so easy for pastors to become comfortable and let their guard down.

In my previous post I urged us (especially us who are pastors) to watch ourselves and our teaching closely. A prerequisite for this kind of vigilance is humility. We must never forget that though we have been saved by the grace of God and given a new life in Jesus Christ, we are still sinners. We still battle with depravity. We are not beyond the pull of our fallenness. Are you standing firm in the faith and in a holy life? Praise God for it. But do not take it for granted. Take heed and keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Pay Close Attention to Yourself and to Your Teaching

With the failure and fall of yet another high-profile evangelical leader, I am reminded again of the vulnerability of pastors and the horrendous consequences which result from such moral downfalls. Ted Haggard's life and ministry did not come crashing down because of one gigantic blow from the enemy. It was no doubt the result of some smaller compromises which gnawed away at his spiritual vitality over a period of months and years. It was a neglect of diligence and spiritual vigilance which weakened him to the point where he would commit such sinful acts.

The prevailing spiritual climate of evangelicalism, in my opinion, does little to militate against such compromises. The shift of pastoral ministry models away from the biblical role of shepherd and toward a corporate CEO model for leadership has introduced worldly criteria for evaluating the work of pastoral ministry. Pastoral success is now measured in baptisms, attendance, media exposure, innovative methodolgy, and other "measurable results." Pastors are driven to achieve this kind of success. Ministry associations even hand out awards to highlight pastors and churches who have achieved such successes.

With their growing CEO-like authority, they tend to become less and less accountable. They tend to feed their own egos rather than fight against them. With the constant pressure for measurable success, there is a great vulnerability to start thinking that the ends justify the means. Pastors make a truce with the world in order to attain a measure of success and notoriety. The pastorate becomes just one among a list of other professions.

Again, most pastors don't enter the ministry with this mentality. They get spiritually lazy and start accepting the wrong ideas for the sake of "success," their vision for pastoral ministry is cut loose from its biblical moorings, and they are adrift on a sea of worldly concepts. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, such pastors are boiling in a cauldron of worldliness and don't even realize the temperature.

I have felt these influences. They are deceptive and powerful. How does a pastor keep from losing his way in such swirling winds? Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16.

Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.

Pay close attention. Literally, to aim at or take pains at something. It is a word of diligence and vigilance. It is the opposite of neglect. It is the opposite of coasting. Pastors who want to avoid spiritual ruin both personally and in their teaching must be intentional about watching their lives and doctrine. They must take pains to evaluate themselves. They must persevere in godly living and godly teaching. The pressures of the world must be met with an equal and opposite pressure of godly instruction and godly example.

Life and doctrine go together. If you start believing the wrong things, you will eventually do the wrong things. Pastors must examine what they believe and how they live. They must be teachable, humble, and accountable. At stake in this is both their lives and the lives of those who listen to them. We are not indestructible. We are vulnerable. For Jesus' sake, and for the sake of His church, we must watch our life and doctrine.

For an excellent message related to this subject go here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Could You Bear Existence If Jesus Is Not Glorified?

In studying Acts 17:16-34 this week, I was greatly challenged by Luke's description of the Apostle Paul's reaction to what he saw in the ancient city of Athens. Luke tells us:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols (Acts 17:16, NASB)

In describing Paul's reaction, Luke uses a Greek word which means "to be irritated or provoked to wrath." John Stott says that this word "originally had medical associations and was used to describe a seizure or an epileptic fit (Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World, IVP, p. 278)." As Paul closely observed the city of Athens, he found it overwhelmed by idolatry. One ancient source sarcastically said it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. Such idolatry moved Paul to the core. He was provoked in his spirit by the situation.

Henry Martyn, the 19th century missionary to India and Persia, understood quite well the response of Paul to idolatry. When Martyn saw a picture of Jesus bowing down and grasping the robes of Mohammed, he responded, "I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified. It would be hell to me if He were always thus to be dishonored." Martyn was provoked in his spirit by idolatry. His heart burned with the desire to see the preeminence and glory of Christ understood and embraced by all peoples.

This is an often overlooked motive for missions. Yet, it ought to be the primary motive. Interestingly, the same Greek word that Luke used to describe Paul's inner provocation is used in the Septuagint to describe the provocation of God in relation to idolatry (Deut. 9:7; Isa. 65:3). It is connected to the jealously of God over His glory. Paul was jealous for the glory of Christ. Henry Martyn was jealous for the glory of Christ.

As we look at our cities and communities, should we not be provoked to see that the glory of God is obscured by the idols of our culture? Should our hearts not be moved by the fact that Jesus is not given His rightful place as Lord? I pray that my heart will be so captivated by the glory of Jesus that it pains me to see Him dishonored by the worship of false gods. I want to be so pained that I will risk engaging people with the gospel so they can be emancipated from their slavery to idolatry and enter into the freedom of the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Luther and the Book: A Reformation Reflection

Yesterday I had to make a road trip to see my son in Oklahoma. While driving I wanted to listen to something which focused on Reformation issues. So, I popped in my MP3 recording of John Piper's series, Men of Whom the World Is Not Worthy. This is a series of biographical talks Piper has given over the years at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. The one I listened to yesterday was an overview of Martin Luther as a preacher and student of Scripture.

Piper began this talk by emphasizing Luther's discovery that God's Word comes to us in a book - the Bible. Piper comments,

In 1539, commenting on Psalm 119, Luther wrote, "In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God's Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word" . This phrase is extremely important. The "external Word" is the Book. And the saving, sanctifying, illuminating Spirit of God, he says, comes to us through this "external Word."
Luther calls it the "external Word" to emphasize that it is objective, fixed, outside ourselves, and therefore unchanging. It is a Book. Neither ecclesiastical hierarchy nor fanatical ecstasy can replace it or shape it. It is "external," like God. You can take or leave it. But you can't make it other than what it is. It is a book with fixed letters and words and sentences.


Piper applies this principle in Luther's life to those who are called to pastoral ministry. In this regard, Piper states,

The immense implication of this for the pastoral ministry is that we pastors are essentially brokers of the Word of God transmitted in a Book. We are fundamentally readers, and teachers and proclaimers of the message of the Book. And all of this is for the glory of the incarnate Word and by the power of the indwelling Spirit. But neither the indwelling Spirit nor the incarnate Word leads us away from the Book that Luther called "the external Word." Christ stands forth for our worship and our fellowship and our obedience from the "external Word." This is where we see the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). So it's for the sake of Christ that the Spirit broods over the Book where Christ is clear, not over trances where he is obscure.

This talk reminded me once again of the importance of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) as the formal principle of the Reformation. One of the factors that plunged the church into the dark ages was that the Bible was obscured and eclipsed by the Roman church and its emphasis on tradition and papal authority. The Reformers rediscovered the authority and power of Scripture and unleashed it in their preaching, writing, and living. Luther translated the Scriptures into German so the "man in the pew" could read it for himself. The captivity of the church in spiritual and moral darkness was due to the captivity of the Word. Luther and the other Reformers restored the Bible to its rightful place in the church.

There are still influences at work in the church which would seek to marginalize the Word of God. Subjectivism is epidemic even among evangelicals. Experientialism and emotionalism are constant dangers when experience and emotion are no longer tethered to the "external Word." When we consider the lives and labors of the Reformers, we are reminded of the necessity of keeping the Word of God central in the life and ministry of the church.

As we celebrate Luther's act of nailing the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, let us also renew our commitment to Sola Scriptura.

For those interested in listening to Dr. Piper's talk on Luther, you can find it here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Confessionally Conservative and Functionally Liberal

James Hamilton has written a provocative article entitled, The Greatest Danger Facing the Church (found here). It is one of those articles that caused me to evaluate my own ministry model and method. It would certainly be a good article for pastoral search committees to read.

Hamilton ably points out the dangerous influence of pragmatism on ministers and the ministry.

Pastors who present Christianity as therapy and self-help do not present Christianity. They are like the liberals that J. Gresham Machen denounced. Machen said that people who don’t believe the Bible should be honest and stop calling themselves Christians, because they have in fact created a new religion that is not to be identified with Christianity. Similarly, the promoters of the American religion of self-help and therapeutic pop-psychology ought to be honest: they don’t believe the Bible is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16).

If they believed that the Bible really does contain everything we need to be saved and to live lives that are pleasing to God, they would preach the Bible from their pulpits. Not only would they preach the Bible, trusting that God has revealed what he thinks his people need, trusting that God knows better than they do what is relevant, they would organize their churches according to the dictates of the Bible rather than the dictates of the market and the corporate world.


Amen Professor Hamilton! One of the tell-tale signs that a church has adopted this approach to ministry is the disappearance of biblical exposition. Churches which have embraced the pragmatic approach to ministry still confess their belief in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. In fact, many of them would be first in line to decry the "liberalism" of those who would dare dispute the doctrine of inerrancy. Yet, these same churches have largely abandoned the exposition of the Scriptures in their preaching and teaching. They are confessionally conservative but functionally liberal. They embrace the inerrancy of Scripture in their confessions and deny the sufficiency of Scripture in their practices.

By preaching the Bible, I am not referring to simply using a text of Scripture as a departure point for proclaiming your opinions. It is not using a biblical text as a launch pad for the latest "five steps to ___________." Preaching the Bible means making the point of your sermon the point of a biblical text. It is explaining the meaning of the biblical text, in its proper context, and making appropriate application for life from that text. It is allowing the text of Scripture to dictate the shape of the message rather than imposing the shape of the sermon on the biblical text. It is studying the text and allowing the text to set the preaching agenda rather than prioritizing our agenda and searching for some verses to prop it up.

Expositional preaching demonstrates in practice what our high view of Scripture dictates to us in theory. Exposition reveals that the preacher really believes 2 Timothy 3:16 - all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. It is biblical conservatism in action. As Professor Hamilton rightly warns, preachers who eclipse the Word of God with a pragmatic "whatever works" approach to ministry pose a danger to the spiritual health of the church.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Incalculable Usefulness of Controversy

It is amazing to note the similarity between the religious atmosphere in which Spurgeon lived and the religious atmosphere in which we find ourselves today. During Spurgeon's day there was such an emphasis on unity that truth was suffering. It was considered by many impolite and "sectarian" to vigorously disagree with other Christians over issues of doctrine. It was a greater sin to be controversial than to be biblically incorrect.

Fast forward to our time. Do we not see the same tendencies prevalently displayed among many evangelicals? I am no expert on post-modernism, but certainly one of the effects of the influence of post-modernism in theological discussion is the tendency to avoid any sort of absolutism and embrace uncertainty. It is considered uncharitable to insist that certain things are absolutely and demonstrably true from the Word of God.

We can learn a great deal from Spurgeon in this regard. Spurgeon spoke of the "incalculable usefulness of controversy" in the church. He spoke about how such vigorous debate of theological issues serves to keep the church alert and always vigilant for the truth. In this regard Spurgeon wrote,

I am quite sure that the best way to promote union is to promote truth. It will not do for us to be all united together by yielding to one another's mistakes. We are to love each other in Christ; but we are not to be so united that we are not able to see each other's faults, and especially not able to see our own. No, purge the house of God, and then shall grand and blessed times dawn on us.

There are some issues being hotly discussed among Southern Baptists right now. Things such as baptism, private prayer language, and Calvinism are subjects which have created some controversy among us. We need not fear the civil, biblically-oriented discussion of these issues. Such discussions give us an opportunity to evaluate our convictions in light of God's Word and articulate them more clearly.

Ideally, the outcome of such discussions would be healthy in two directions. First, there is the opportunity to confirm with greater certainty the essential doctrines of the faith and articulate them with increased clarity and fervor. Second, there is the opportunity to clarify which doctrines define the distinctive confessional heritage of Southern Baptists. These two are not necessarily the same. In other words, there are some doctrines that define evangelical Christianity as a whole. Such doctrines would normally be considered essentials of the gospel itself. There are other doctrines that define us as "Baptist" Christians. These doctrines may or may not be among the doctrines which define evangelicalism in a larger sense. For example, Baptists insist on believers baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. This is a Baptist distinctive (not for Baptists alone, but a distinctive nonetheless). We do not suggest that one must hold to believers baptism to be an evangelical Christian. Yet, we do insist on it to be a Baptist.

Some among us probably lament these controversies. I do not. I agree with Spurgeon that such disagreements, when pursued in a Christ-like spirit, really do serve the church. Let us remember that when the Conservative Resurgence began in SBC life, there were those who cried down the controversy as unchristian and uncharitable. Where would be today if men like Criswell, Patterson, Pressler, Rogers, and countless unnamed pastors and church members had prized unity above truth?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trifling or Trembling

I am currently reading The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray. Murray writes about Spurgeon's early years as a preacher at Park Street Chapel in Southwark . Thousands thronged to hear Spurgeon preach in the chapel and the meeting halls rented to accomodate their numbers. He was a popular preacher who quickly reached "celebrity status" in England. This is heady stuff for a young man in his early twenties.

The amazing thing is how grounded Spurgeon was in his understanding of his role as a preacher. He did not allow the clamor of the crowds to distract him from a singular focus on his responsibility to faithfully declare God's truth. The following quotes from Spurgeon cited by Murray give us a feel for Spurgeon's priorities in preaching.

We tremble lest we should misbelieve; and tremble more - if you are as I am - lest we should mistake and misinterpret the Word...To preach the whole truth is an awful charge. You and I, who are ambassadors for God, must not trifle, but we must tremble at God's Word.

It were better for me that I had never been born than that I preach to these people carelessly, or keep back any part of my Master's truth. Better to have been a devil than a preacher playing fast and loose with God's Word, and by such means working the ruin of the souls of men...

It occurs to me that our age is an age of trifling rather than trembling at God's Word. The Spurgeons have given way to the Osteens of the world. It seems that in some circles the less serious you take the Word of God, the more likely you are to get a large following. The urgent, careful, precise, pointed, and passionate preaching of the biblical text has been replaced by an amalgum of motivational speeches and stand-up comedy.

Little wonder that the church has lost its spiritual power and authority when the men behind her pulpits trifle rather than tremble at God's Word. What our churches need are men whose minds and hearts are on fire with God's truth; men whose chief aim is to please the One who called them to declare His glory to the people. I know this is what my church needs. When such men stand each week and preach the Word of God in this fashion, it will render churches which have a sense of the majesty of God and take His Word seriously.

We don't need a survey or a case study to know that this is true. God has already told us that He will bless preachers and Christians who embrace such an attitude toward His Word. He tells us in Isaiah 66:2:

This is the Lord's declaration, I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Who Is Behind the Marginalization of the Cross?

I've been working through Matthew 16:18-23 for the last couple of weeks. Following the interaction between Peter and Jesus will give you a case of spiritual whiplash. In verses 13-20, Peter makes a stunning messianic confession about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Through a play on words, Jesus then informs Peter that this confession and Peter's subsequent ministry of proclaiming it are the "rock" upon which Jesus will build the church (the words "Peter" and "rock" come from the same root word in Greek).

Then, in verses 21-23, Jesus begins to speak plainly to His disciples about what will happen to Him in Jerusalem. He will suffer and die at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders. Immediately Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him telling Him that this will never happen! Jesus then says to Peter, "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests but on man's." Wow. Talk about going from a rock to a clod in record time.

This interaction between Peter and Jesus renders some penetrating thoughts. Peter was trying to get Jesus to take a path other than suffering and death on a cross. This is exactly what Satan was trying to do through tempting Jesus as recorded in Matthew 4. Jesus responds to Peter in the same words in Matthew 16 as He did to Satan in Matthew 4 - get away or get behind me. In addition, Jesus tells Peter that his attitude toward Jesus' prediction of His suffering and death reveals a man-centered perspective rather than a God-centered one. So, anyone who tries to marginalize the cross is pursuing a path that is characteristic of the devil and fallen humanity.

This has some far-reaching implications for individual Christians and for churches. For instance, when we Christians hide the gospel and its implications in personal relationships, business, leisure pursuits, etc. so as to avoid at all costs any kind of personal loss or suffering we are marginalizing the cross of Christ. When pastors gloss over or leave out the more offensive aspects of the gospel (sin, hell, substitutionary atonement) in order to draw larger crowds, we are marginalizing the cross. When churches lower the expectations of discipleship to the point where following Jesus is all about me, my family, my success, my happiness, etc. we are marginalizing the cross.

When we obscure the cross of Christ and the cross He calls us to carry, we are thinking and acting more like devils than disciples. When we "take Jesus aside" so to speak and rebuke Him by tyring to make His message more palatable to fallen human beings in the name of getting a better response, we are not promoting Christ's cause but Satan's. I wonder how often Jesus would like to say to me, "get out of my way...you are a stumbling block to me?" Would He say this to my church and yours?

May God help us to embrace the cross rather than apologize for it. May we never unwittingly play the pawn of the prince of the power of the air by avoiding the cross or distracting others from the way of the cross. Rather, let us follow Jesus in the way of the cross realizing that when we lose our lives for Jesus' sake, we truly find them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

School of Providence and Prayer

I am writing this from the computer lab at NOBTS. This seminary is known as the "school of providence and prayer." I believe it. It is nothing short of incredible how God has enabled the school to remain strong during the aftermath of Katrina. Of course, things are not back to pre-Katrina status. Yet, NOBTS is not just surviving. It is thriving.

Last night we attended the presentation of a musical called "Someone Is Praying Me Through." It was a wonderful time of worship focused on the importance and power of prayer for the people of God. It encouraged my soul. It has been good to reconnect with friends from other places across the SBC. I also got to spend a little time with my good friend Dr. Stan Norman. I picked up his book entitled, "The Baptist Way." It is an excellent treatment of Baptist distinctives. I recommend it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Off to New Orleans

Tomorrow I will make one of two annual trips to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for a meeting of the trustees. It has been my privilege to be part of this board since 2004. It is a great experience being involved with other men and women from across Southern Baptist life in the task of providing oversight to one of our six SBC seminaries. During my short time on the board, the seminary has been through some interesting times. Early in my service we faced the issue of Sole Membership which had to do with how the legal relationship between NOBTS and the SBC would be defined. Recently, NOBTS has been dealing with the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Needless to say, it has been anything but boring.

I have marveled at the resilience of the seminary faculty and administration. I have marveled at the outpouring of support from the SBC family for the seminary during the dark days of Katrina. I have marveled at the steady and passionate leadership of Dr. Chuck Kelley. I have marveled at the financial administration of Clay Corvin (seminary finance man). I have marveled at the vigorous extension center program maintained by NOBTS. All in all, it has been a marvelous thing to behold!

I have a deep appreciation for theological education. It has been a major influence in my own life and ministry. Having experienced it from the "student" side, I now have the opportunity to get a taste of it from the administrative side. I am thankful to Southern Baptists for this learning experience. It is a powerful thing to see the impact that cooperation makes on the training of future pastors, missionaries, ministers, educators, and others who benefit from our seminaries.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Examining Our Criteria for Success

I read a thought-provoking article today about Pastoral Ambition here. The author of the article spoke frankly about the pressure of ambition in the church today. All honest pastors would say they have felt the seductive power of such ambition. Most pastors have attended pastors meetings or conferences where they feel the pressure to be able to boast of a "growing" church which statistically demonstrates increases in attendance, baptisms, budgets, and facilities. I have certainly felt this pressure and, to my shame, on occasion succumbed to it.

The prevailing culture in evangelicalism feeds this sort of suspender popping among pastors. When asked if their church is growing, many pastors only speak in terms of statistics and prestige in the community. If we examine it honestly, this criteria for growth and success in ministry isn't much different than the criteria used by big name retailers. Success is measured by how many customers we have, sales numbers, and return business. In this scheme, churches become retailers, pastors become salesmen or marketing strategists, and the gospel becomes a commodity to package and sell to consumers. It is no wonder in such an environment that pastors (and congregations for that matter) become enamored with ambition.

This model for success strikes me as patently unbiblical. How does the Bible define success? In a word faithfulness. Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy to encourage his spiritual son Timothy, who was serving the church in Ephesus. In these letters we see the sage advice of a seasoned veteran pastor to a younger pastor. Paul repeatedly encourages Timothy to pursue faithfulness.

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:18).

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:14-16).

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith (1 Tim. 6:11-12).

Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:1-2).

The verses above remind us that the measure of pastoral success is faithfulness to God and His Word and faithfully discharging the duties of the ministry. We may all be surprised one day to find that the most "successful" pastors and churches were ones whose ministries garnered no worldly acclaim. They will be pastors and churches who labored in loving faithfulness with a single eye to the pleasure of Christ.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Primer on Being "Missional"

Our friends at Nine Marks Ministries have done another great service to us by providing some excellent articles on the concept of being "missional." The concept of being missional has come to the forefront of evangelical discussion primarily because of its prominence among the emerging/emergent movement. There is a lot of talk right now about missional churches and being missional as a person. The articles at Nine Marks will provide a good overview of this concept. The footnotes and citations will also provide other places to look for further study.

Click here to begin reading these articles.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Privilege and Peril of Being a Pastor

I cannot remember who decreed that October was to be "Pastor Appreciation Month." I think it might have been Focus on the Family or some group like them. In any case, for several years now, it has been a tradition at our congregation to recognize and appreciate the pastors of our church. It is always a humbling experience for me. It is an experience that makes me feel wonderful and uncomfortable all at the same time! Last night we shared such a recognition time with our people.

Being a pastor is a great privilege. It is an unrivaled privilege to be called of God to serve His people in preaching, teaching, loving, counseling, and leading. There is much said and written today about the duties of ministry and the responsibilities of pastoring. Yet, we who are pastors ought never to forget the great privilege that is ours to serve our Lord and His church. I sometimes can't believe that I get paid to do what I so love doing - pastoring.

It is a privilege to be in a position to watch God working in the lives of others. Sometimes I get to see people born into the kingdom of God. Sometimes I get to see things "click" in the minds and hearts of believers as they understand some biblical truth for the first time. Other times I get to see how godly people are sustained by the grace of God through horrible difficulties. Every now and then I get to see how a godly man or woman lays down this earthly tent and slips into the presence of Jesus. Pastors have the great privilege of proximity to observe these wonderful workings of God in the lives of His people.

While I revel in the privilege of being a pastor, I also recognize there are perils involved. In his classic book The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter writes very directly to pastors about the perils of ministry. Here are a few excerpts from just one subsection of his motives for the oversight of the pastors life.

Take heed to yourselves, for the honor of your Lord and Master, and of his holy truth and ways, doth lie more on you than on other men. As you may render him more service, so you may do him more disservice than others. The nearer men stand to God, the greater dishonor hath he by their miscarriages; and the more will they be imputed by foolish men to God himself.

O brethren, could your hearts endure to hear men cast the dung of your iniquities in the face of the holy God, and in the face of the gospel, and of all that desire to fear the Lord? Would it not break your hearts to think that all the godly Christians about you should suffer reproach for your misdoings?

O take heed, brethren, of every word you speak, and of every step you tread, for you bear the ark of the Lord, — you are entrusted with his honor! ... And you are not unacquainted with that standing decree of heaven, ‘Them that honor me I will honor; and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.’ Never did man dishonor God, but it proved the greatest dishonor to himself. God will find out ways enough to wipe off any stain that is cast upon him; but you will not so easily remove the shame and sorrow from yourselves.

Such words ought to pierce the soul of a pastor. These words echo the apostolic directive to "pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:16)." These words drive me to Christ for His grace to persevere and protect the purity of my life and His gospel.

One of the most meaningful things that happened last night during our pastor appreciation time was the way it closed. One of our elders passed out some sheets of paper with Colossians 1:9-12 printed on it. He then proceeded to ask our congregation to pray for the pastors each day during the month of October. What a blessing it is to a pastor to have the congregation beseeching God on his behalf. Only by the grace of God can a pastor properly deal with the privileges and perils of his office.

Friday, September 29, 2006

More Thoughts on Music in the Church

In my previous post on music in the church, I suggested that music is an integral part of the worship life of the church. Most people who participate in congregational worship week by week intuitively understand this. Many of them also have an appreciation for the prominence of music in worship from a biblical standpoint. Most evangelical churches certainly demonstrate this principle in practice. After all, most evangelical churches make music a promiment part of weekly worship gatherings.

Much has been written about the "worship wars" which continue to be fought in churches today. These battles are normally drawn along the lines of "traditional" versus "contemporary" music. In many cases, these battles are mere battles of personal preference. One group in the church prefers traditional music. "Traditional" normally refers to hymns or gospel songs accompanied by piano, organ, and perhaps an orchestra. "Contemporary" normally refers to modern worship songs or choruses accompanied by keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. These firefights are often touched off over differences of musical style.

It seems to me that there is a much more important question when it comes to worship music. It is not a question of style but content. When it comes to evaluating the kind of music we will sing in our worship gatherings, we ought to focus first on content. We need to be asking ourselves about the theological value of the lyrics we sing. What do the lyrics tell us about God and His saving work through Jesus Christ? Are the lyrics God-centered and Christ-honoring? Are the lyrics biblically sound? Does the text of the song employ biblical language and concepts to focus our thoughts on God and His mighty deeds? Does the text of the song lift us God-ward?

The truth is that old does not mean bad and new does not mean good when it comes to music. The reverse is also true. New is not necessarily good and old necessarily bad. Todays new will be tomorrows old. It is historically arrogant to suggest that the hymns of Watts and Wesley no longer have value to the church in the 21st century. It is also impoverishing to the church today to ignore some of the contemporary compositions of people like Chris Tomlin, Stewart Townsend, and others. I realize there are many other issues surrounding music and worship. I realize there are questions of what styles are appropriate for a worship service. Those are legitimate questions that deserve to be debated and discussed by serious Christians.

However, let's keep the main thing in focus here. Church leaders must put our energy into selecting music which has excellent content set in a musical style appropriate to our context. All of us need to practice an ethic of humility and service when it comes to church music. We are tempted to think it would be great to attend a church where they sing all the music I like and none of the music I don't like. Chances are such a church would be made up of people just like me. I'm certain that would not be a good thing. The Bible teaches us to prefer one another in humility and love (Rom. 12:10; Phlp. 2:3). Next time you open the bulletin and see a song you don't like, remind yourself that there is someone in the congregation whose soul is comforted or encouraged or enlivened by the truth in that song. Serve them by allowing the theological value of the lyrics to reach your heart though you may not prefer the style in which it is presented.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Let the Church Sing

Each year Eric Stone, our worship pastor, hosts a guest clinician to lead our choir in a weekend retreat. After the retreat on Friday and Saturday, the choir presents several anthems during the Sunday morning worship service. This weekend the choir will be at it again, working on several spirituals by composer Moses Hogan. Dr. Cecil Riney will be the clinician this year. I always enjoy hearing our choir present the pieces they have prepared each year.

When one considers the testimony of Scripture, it is clear that God's people are to be a singing people. Of course, the music of God's people takes many forms. Some of it is choral, some is congregational, some is instrumental. Often it is a combination of the above elements. In the pages of Scripture, God's people are exhorted to sing over and over again. For example, consider Psalm 98:

O sing to the LORD a new song, For He has done wonderful things, His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The LORD has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn Shout joyfully before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea roar and all it contains, The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands, Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the LORD, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness And the peoples with equity.

Here the people of God are encouraged to lift up their voices and their instruments in praise to the Lord because He alone is Redeemer, King, and Judge. God's people are called to sing. All those in the earth are called to sing. Finally, the creation itself is pictured as singing for joy to the Lord.

Music is an essential part of biblical worship. Music doesn't set the table for worship (preaching). It is worship. I would be the first in line to insist that preaching is a non-negotiable element in worship. Yet, we must not allow the primacy of preaching to cause us to undervalue the importance of music in worship. In Ephesians 5:19 we are told that the Spirit-filled church is to "speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." When we look into heaven what do we see? We find the church singing a new song extolling the worthiness of the Lamb who purchased them with His blood (Revelation 5:9).

Martin Luther said, "Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not change what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart." I believe Dr. Luther was right.

So, let the church sing. God has given us the gift of music as a vehicle to express our joy in Him. It is a medium through which the people of God may declare His glorious works. It is pleasing to Him when we sing about Him and to Him for His glory.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Primer on Emerging Church Issues

One of the movements which has generated a great deal of debate among evangelicals is the Emerging Church. This movement is tough to define. Some of its proponents are even more difficult to nail down when it comes to their views on key theological issues. This is a movement which merits the awareness of those who love the truth and desire to protect its purity.

A great place to start learning more about the Emerging Church is Nine Marks Ministries. There are several articles related to the Emerging Church which would be quite helpful to those who want a brief and faithful overview of the movement. These articles are written by people who have studied the writings of well-known Emerging Church leaders. Their perspectives will assist you to understand the diversity of this movement, as well as provide some necessary cautions regarding the pitfalls associated with Emerging Church thought.

Follow this link to the Nine Marks web site and enjoy!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Glorious Actions...Glorious Sins

Thomas Brooks said, “A man's most glorious actions will at last be found to be but glorious sins, if he hath made himself, and not the glory of God, the end of those actions.” There are a great many people who think themselves to be performing "glorious actions" which will put them in good standing with God when, in reality, those very actions are simply "glorious sins." In other words, many people are doing good things in an effort to balance the scales with God. They carry a load of guilt over decisions made and acts committed which remind them of the weight of their sin. So, in an effort to cancel their guilt, they seek to do "good" things which, in their minds, will negate these sinful acts. The only problem is that the very things they do, which taken by themselves might be noble, are adding more guilt because they are done in a context of self-righteousness. The path of doing good, which they are convinced will lead them into God's favor, is really leading them further into God's judgment.

Paul speaks about this phenomenon in Philippians 3:1-11. He tells about how his life was once characterized by "confidence in the flesh." He speaks about his impressive resume of religious heritage, zeal, and legalistic righteousness. If anyone could feel good about their glorious actions, it was Paul. Yet, when confronted by Christ, he finally realized the all the things he once considered credits to his spiritual account were, in actuality, severe debits. This change in perspective about his glorious actions is communicated clearly in verse 7 where Paul states, "But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ." He calls those things which he once thought gain "rubbish" in verse 8. This is a delicate translation which renders a word that literally means "excrement."

Paul came to realize that the things he thought would put in him good standing with God were really working against him. Why? Because they were done in a self-righteous effort to earn the favor of God by human merit. In verse 9 Paul says, "...and may be found in Him (Christ), not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith." You see, every act we do in an attitude of self-effort to gain favor with God is the worst kind of insult to His grace. Every act of self-righteousness is an affront to the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Paul refers to those who think they can earn God's favor by self-effort as "enemies of the cross" (Phlp. 3:18).

We need a righteousness which is not our own. It is an "alien righteousness" that is credited to us by faith in Jesus Christ. Our righteousness is just a compilation of glorious sins. We need the righteousness of Christ. May we never be guilty of promoting a theology that allows people to have confidence in their glorious sins. Rather, let us point them to the cross of Christ where those sins were credited to Jesus Christ so that all who trust in Him may have His righteousness credited to them (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Booster Shots for Preacher

I once spent a week in South Dakota with a mission service corp couple who had a Dachsund named "Preacher." After getting over my initial attack of laughter, I really had fun with the idea of a dog named Preacher. Think of all the interesting things that might be overheard in that house. "Preacher won't stay in the yard. He runs off constantly." Or, "We had to beat Preacher with a newspaper yesterday for messing up the carpet." Or, "Preacher barks constantly and the neighbors are getting fed up." Or, "Sadly, we had to put Preacher down 'cause he wouldn't quit biting people." How about, "We had to take Preacher for his booster shots." As you can see, the possibilities for humor are endless.

In all seriousness, preachers do need booster shots from time to time. They need spiritual booster shots of inspiration, challenge, and motivation. I received such a booster shot over the last couple of days. I just returned from a pastors conference in Dallas called Exponential 06. It was sponsored by Crown Financial Ministries and Generous Giving. The focus of this conference was creating a culture of generosity in the church. It was a very good conference with great teaching from Randy Alcorn and Joe Stowell. My soul was both fed and challenged.

I am very appreciative of a church family that provides budgeted funds for me to attend such conferences. Pastors spend most weeks focused on preparation and preaching to others, along with all the other pastoral duties for which they are responsible. It is refreshing for pastors to go somewhere and be in the pew instead of the pulpit for a change. It is an opportunity for pastors to focus on listening to the Word of God. These are replenishing times for men who can sometimes get spiritually depleted. These are encouraging times for men who can often be discouraged.

Of course, such conferences are not meant to be substitutes for a pastors private spiritual life of Scripture, prayer, and reflection. Yet, they can be important "booster shots" of inspiration and learning which keep the spiritual senses of the pastor sharp and alert. If at all possible, churches should provide funds for their pastors, staff, and leadership to go for such times of spiritual refreshment, learning, and challenge. Thanks church family for sending me to get my booster shot.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Preaching that which Costs Me Nothing

Ray Van Neste has written an excellent perspective piece on pastoral plagiarism for Baptist Press. In his article he quotes from Steve Sjogren, a pastor in Ohio, who says that it is wrong for pastors to spend so much time preparing sermons. They should just preach the sermons of well-known, successful pastors. After all, these big-church pastors have proven the worth of their sermons by their large followings.

I think Steve Sjogren has missed something very important. Preaching involves more than the skillful delivery of a well-organized biblical message. A huge part of preaching is what God does in the heart of the preacher as he wrestles with the text of Scripture. It is this element of preparation that makes the sermon authentic and forceful. After all, it is difficult to preach with conviction truth which has not gripped your own heart.

Sjogren's advice compounds an already serious problem in the church today. Too many churches are getting the equivalent of a happy meal on Sunday morning when they really need solid, home-cooked fare. Do pastors really need less time wrestling with the Word of God in preparation to feed God's flock? Is plagiarizing the sermons of famous pastors really the antidote for anemic pulpits? From my perspective, the opposite is true. The church needs more pastors who will take time to study, pray, prepare, and preach messages which provide strong biblical nourishment to their people (2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-5).

Pastors must remember that their first and most important audience is God Himself. We pastors need to ask ourselves, "Is God pleased with my preparation and my preaching?" We do not preach to impress people but to please God. When Ornan offered David his oxen, his grain, and the wood from his implements for a sacrifice, David replied, "I will not take what is yours for the Lord or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing (1 Chronicles 21:24)." When pastors plagiarize the sermons of other preachers, regardless of the reason, they offer to the Lord something that costs them nothing. Such an approach to preaching harms both the preacher and the people.

The Church, Politics, and the Gospel - 2

It is interesting to consider the impact the early Christians had on their culture. One only needs to read the book of Acts to discover that the early church was creating quite a stir. Some referred to them as "these men who have upset the world (Acts 17:6)." How did they do it? Did they organize boycotts? Did they back the right candidates? Did they rally a huge voting block? No. In fact, none of these avenues were even available to them. They lived under a pagan dictatorship. So, how did they influence their culture? With the gospel.

Consider how different this is in comparison to the current situation among evangelicals. The early Christians had no political power but greatly influenced their culture through the spiritual power of the gospel. Modern evangelicals have great political power but, by comparison, are making little impact on the culture because we have marginalized the spiritual power of the gospel. When Paul stood before Governor Felix, Luke tells us that Felix became frightened. What was it that frightened Felix? Was it the threat of being ousted from office by the religious right? No. It was when Paul pressed home the gospel issues of righteousnes, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:24-25).

It seems that the only time early Christians had the ear of the governing officials was when they had been arrested by them. When these believers stood before the governing officials, they consistently presented the claims of the gospel. These early Christians understood that their ultimate mission was to penetrate their culture with the gospel. When Paul was in prison for preaching the gospel, he asked the Ephesian believers to pray that God would give him the proper boldness to make known the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19-20).

The early Christians were not depending on "getting the right man in Rome" to effect change in the culture. They knew that the gospel changed hearts. Evangelicals need to focus on "gospelizing" our culture instead of moralizing it. The power to live right does not come from law. It comes from having a new heart under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Church, Politics, and the Gospel

An online report at Fox News today addressed how Democrats are trying to fix their "God problem." It seems that some religious democrats are trying to correct the idea that their party has no place for God or morality. One of the candidates said that his party needs to support traditional marriage, oppose abortion on demand, and reverse the perception that there is no room for God or morality in the democratic party. The reporter commented on how important the religious vote was to the election campaign of President Bush.

There is no question that politicians see the church as an important voting block that could swing the outcome of elections. But is that how many churches are beginning to view themselves? Are the energies and resources of churches really well spent on using the political process to shape the morality of the culture through legislation? Or does the real purpose for the existence of the church lie elsewhere?

In my opinion, some churches are coming dangerously close to portraying a moralistic answer to the problems of our culture rather than a gospel answer. Moralism is the idea that we need to make everyone moral. It is the sentiment that if we could just pass the right laws and get society to conform to the right moral code, God would smile on us and all would be well. So, many churches have jumped headlong into the realm of politics to moralize America. The pastors of these churches preach politically charged sermons on moral issues. They try to mobilize their people to write letters, demonstrate, vote, and pass referendums on moral issues. A great deal of time, money, and effort is focused on these issues.

"So what is the problem with that," someone will ask. "Don't you care about morality?" Of course I do. I inform myself about issues and vote very conservatively. Any person who loves God would choose morality over immorality and righteousness over unrighteousness. But I do not believe for one moment that moralism is the answer for society's problems. Let's say we pass all the laws and referendums that favor our moral positions. Will we have eradicated immorality? Absolutely not. Sin is a radical problem that requires more than a moral makeover. This is why the church must never be known for moralism.

The church has something much more powerful than referendums and legal codes. It has the gospel. Only the gospel has the power to change people from the inside out. Laws may have a deterrent effect on sinners to curb their actions. The gospel has the power to change their desires. Laws can makes sinners more aware of their sins and articulate proper punishment for those sins. But laws cannot deliver people from the power of sin. Only the gospel can do that. The church must never contribute to helping sinners trust in their "morality" as they whistle down the path to eternal destruction.

Many in the conservative camp (my camp) would charge the mainline liberal churches with abandoning the gospel to pursue social causes like alleviating hunger, poverty, disease, etc. But are not many of our conservative brethren in danger of abandoning the gospel in favor of pursuing conservative social causes? We must not allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to be eclipsed by a political agenda of any stripe - liberal or conservative. For the church to cry down the social evils of our culture without seeking to bring the gospel to that culture is like a doctor telling you that you have cancer but withholding treatment.

I'll have more to say about this in a later post.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Danger of Cookie Cutter Ministry

Someone sent me a link to a Wall Street Journal article about how many churches are conflicted over the implementation of the Purpose Driven model for ministry. If you are interested, you can read it here. Now, I don't think that Rick Warren is out to destroy the church as we know it. Neither do I agree with everything about the Purpose Driven model for ministry. Like many other ministry fads, I think it is rather weak on the gospel and strong on marketing.

The real problem lies with the infatuation that evangelicals seem to have with "cookie cutter" ministry models and their unwillingness to evaluate such models biblically. Many evangelical pastors and church leaders are dissatisfied with the "growth" of their churches and are clamoring for something to get results. In comes the guy who has cleverly packaged something that worked for him at XYZ Community Church. This seems like a magic bullet to fix all the problems and generate some "growth." So, we buy it, we use it indiscriminately, and we are surprised when it doesn't create the results that Pastor Big got in his church.

We evangelicals need an immunization against the pragmatism that feeds this approach to ministry. Our question used to be "is it biblical?" Now our question is "does it work?" Unfortunately what works isn't always biblical. There are a number of fringe preachers and false teachers who are building huge followings with distortions or outright heresies. Joel Osteen has a huge following but I wouldn't exactly call his message biblical or gospel-centered.

Because of their market-driven mentality, cookie cutter ministry models are usually characterized by two things. First, they leave out things they should have left in. If the market won't bear sin, repentance, hell, Lordship of Christ, and such "hard things," just leave it out. Secondly, they bring in things they should have left out. When we start building ministries based on what we think people want, we are bound to bring in worldly attitudes and unsaved "church members." I am not talking about worship styles or whether your preacher wears a golf shirt or a suit. I'm talking about the purity of gospel and pursuit of holiness. The market doesn't normally want to hear the things they most need to hear when it comes to spiritual matters.

The antidote for cookie cutter ministry syndrome is to get back to being God-centered, gospel-driven, Scripture-saturated churches. I once heard Dr. Al Mohler say, "There is a difference between a crowd and a church." The pastors and church leaders who are buying into the cookie cutter approach are learning the truth of that statement the hard way.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sound Words for 911

Today is the anniversary of the attacks on our nation in 2001. The images of fire, smoke, and ash are still fresh for many of us. The horrible images of those massive buildings crumbling in a heap still evoke strong emotions of sorrow, fear, and vulnerability.

One of the clarion voices of our time which helps us to think in a thoroughly biblical way about tragedy and suffering is John Piper. Here is a link to the message he preached to his congregation after those events five years ago. It will feed your soul.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Authentic Ministry

This morning's message focused on 2 Corinthians 12:11-21. In this text, Paul is completing the defense of his apostolic ministry against accusations of duplicity and inferiority. False apostles were "trashing" Paul in Corinth. So, though he did not want to get into the "foolishness" of defending himself, he did for the ultimate benefit of the Corinthian church.

As Paul brings his defense to a close in this text, he offers four insights on the distinguishing marks of an authentic ministry. Not only do these apply to authenticity in ministry specifically, but to the life of following Jesus generally. If we want to be the "real deal" as followers of Christ who minister in His name, we need to pay heed to these words from Paul.

  1. Authentic ministry is marked by the humble expression of spiritual gifts (vv. 11-12). Paul's ministry was characterized by apostolic signs and wonders. These divine "workings of power" validated him as a true apostle and certified the gospel he preached. However, Paul exercised these gifts with the understanding that he was a "nobody" (v. 11). In addition, he uses the passive voice to indicate that the supernatural works did not originate with him but with God. It was God working in him to draw attention to Jesus, not Paul wowing the crowd with his spectacular abilities. Though we don't have these apostolic gifts, we do have spiritual gifts given by God to be used for ministry. We must take care that we exercise these gifts with humility for Christ's glory.
  2. Authentic ministry is marked by sacrifice on behalf of others (vv. 13-15). Paul expressed his commitment to "spend and be spent" for the spiritual welfare of the Corinthians. He did not desire their possessions but them. Here we find the example of true ministry which gives for the benefit of others rather than taking for self-centered gain.
  3. Authentic ministry is marked by personal integrity (vv. 16-18). Paul's opponents said that he was trying to come in the backdoor and take the money of the Corinthians under the guise of an "offering" for the Jerusalem church. Thus, some in Corinth viewed him as crafty and duplicitous in his dealings with them. Nothing was further from the truth. Both Paul and his representatives acted in complete integrity and honesty toward the Corinthians. True followers of Christ do not exploit others through deceit for personal gain.
  4. Authentic ministry is marked by a deep sense of accountability (vv. 19-21). Paul was not blowing his horn to impress the Corinthians. In reality, he was speaking in Christ in the sight of God. He understood his life as open before the face of God. He was accountable to God for his life and ministry. This vertical dimension of accountability was the foundation of the horizontal dimension between himself and the church in Corinth. He expressed his fears that he would have to hold some accountable who were unrepentant. True ministry embraces both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of accountability.

God help us to live and minister in such a way that we are the "real deal."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Why I Love Elders Meetings

Tomorrow afternoon I will spend two hours with five other men who have been called by God to shepherd our church. Our church leadership structure is built on the principle of a plurality of elders who are called by God and recognized by the congregation for the purpose of providing spiritual direction and protection to the church. Though we also practice congregationalism (the congregation participates in discussing and approving recommendations), we do not believe this should be done in isolation from plural eldership. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Much has been written about plural eldership. Some excellent resources are available from fellow Southern Baptists on this issue (Elders in Congregational Life by Phil Newton; By Whose Authority? Elders in Baptist Life by Mark Dever). My purpose in this post is not to argue the correctness of eldership versus other models of church leadership. Rather, I want to offer some personal reflections on how eldership has benefitted my ministry. Not only do I believe that plural eldership is correct based on biblical exegesis, my experience has taught me the benefits of it as well.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that plural eldership is always easy. Sometimes it is agonizing. Anytime you put several strong leaders together, there is the potential for sparks. But sparks are a normal by-product of iron sharpening iron. Sometimes we plod and plough through the deliberation of difficult decisions that will impact the people of God. Notwithstanding all of the difficulties, the benefits are far greater. So, I offer here my list of Why I Love Elders Meetings.

  1. Shared accountability. Multiple leaders making decisions together, praying together, discussing Scripture together, and agonizing together provides a context for accountability. Our words and actions are tested in the crucible of plural leadership.
  2. Multiple gifts. All leaders (all Christians for that matter) are gifted. However, all leaders do not possess the same gifts. In the context of plural leadership, we each benefit from the others gifts and skills. Another leader's strengths may offset my weaknesses.
  3. Decisions are generally stronger. If I make a decision about some issue of church life by myself, the strength of that decision is based on the limitations of my knowledge, my experience, and my perspective. When the same issue is considered in an elders meeting, the knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of other godly men strengthen the final decision.
  4. Shared burdens. One of the great benefits of plural eldership is the sharing of the burdens of church leadership with other men who love Christ and His church.
  5. Multiplied encouragement. There is an atmosphere of support and encouragement among men who share the privilege and responsibility of church leadership. As we pray for each other and encourage each other, we are mutually strengthened.

I thank God for the men whom He has called and gifted to lead our church in this capacity. I know that my ministry is enhanced and encouraged in this environment. I look forward to meeting with them tomorrow afternoon!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Happy Birthday Blake!

Today is my son Blake's birthday. He is twelve. He's a great kid. He loves to laugh and sometimes his laughter infects me with laughter. Today Jamie and I will take him out for a special birthday dinner. We do this for each of our four kids on their birthday just to spend some time with them and make the day uniquely theirs.

Every time one of the kids celebrates a birthday, it reinforces two things in my life. First, it reminds of the knee-knocking responsibility of being a Dad. God has charged fathers with the task of not exasperating our kids but raising them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). It is a daunting task fraught with many challenges and difficulties. But it is a task that fathers dare not abdicate lest we contribute to the ruin of our sons and daughters.

The second thing the kids' birthdays do for me is remind me to rejoice over them. They are truly gifts from God. I cannot begin to count the number of ways my life has been enriched by them. Through both the positive and negative experiences of parenthood I have learned many spiritual lessons.

I recently heard Voddie Baucham expound Ephesians 6:1-4. He unpacked that text in a way that really hit home with me. He talked about how the home is the primary place in which discipleship should occur. I have seen that dynamic over and over again in my experience with my kids. I pray that they have been discipled (and continue to be) by me. I know that I have benefitted spiritually in the process of raising/discipling them. As a pastor, I feel this challenge acutely. Pastors kids don't "turn out right" just because they live with pastors. When it comes to discipling kids, I agree with the person who said, "An ounce of parent is worth a pound of pastor." The church is no substitute for a godly Dad (and Mom) who take seriously their charge to raise children who know and love Christ.

I thank God for the privilege of being an earthly father to Jacob, Jared, Blake, and Sydnie. It has been an experience that has driven me time and time again to my Heavenly Father to give Him thanks, to ask His forgiveness, and to seek His wisdom to handle well the responsibility and joy of parenthood.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Spending and Being Spent

In working through 2 Corinthians, my heart has been challenged by the example of Paul in relation to pastoral ministry. It is not uncommon these days for men to seek prestige, position, and power via the ministry. I have felt the seductive power of these sirens of ministerial manipulation. Most pastors (if they are honest) have felt these forces at work in their lives. My weekly dose of 2 Corinthians has been a challenge and a warning to me as one who has been called to shepherd God's flock.

In 2 Corinthians 12:11-18, Paul is bringing the defense of his apostleship to a close. In this text, he reiterates some important marks of authenticity in his ministry. One of those marks was his willingness to give himself on behalf of the Corinthians. He says, "...I do not seek what is yours but you (v. 14)." He continues, "I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls (v. 15)." What a powerful statement in relation to pastoral ministry! To spend and be spent for the souls God has entrusted to our care.

This is a description of pastoral ministry not often heard in the present climate of ministry professionalization. Who wants to sign up for a lifestyle of spending and being spent for the spiritual welfare of others? Yet, this is the heart and soul of pastoral ministry as Paul understood it. He saw the ministry not as a life of taking from others to benefit himself, but as a life of giving himself to benefit others. Matthew Henry described it as a candle which burns itself out to give light to those around it.

Lord, help me to resist the temptation to use ministry as a platform for self-congratulatory and self-seeking activities. Free me from the desire to make my exaltation the focus of ministry. Instead, let me spend and be spent in the name of Jesus for the eternal welfare of souls.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Joy of Studying Scripture Together

Each Wednesday evening a group of people gather at our church for prayer and Bible study. Tonight we spent some time discussing the comprehensive sovereignty of God as it relates to calamity. It is part of an introduction to a study in Joel. We looked at several passages about God's sovereignty in relation to calamities and evil.

As I reflect on this time in God's Word with other believers I am filled with joy. There is something wonderful about Christians coming together with Bibles open before them to tackle deep and difficult subjects with the intent of submitting our thoughts to the truth of God. The discussion was lively and engaging. The power of God's Word was evident as we looked at passage after passage which declared God's sovereignty in human events.

There is no substitute for studying the Scriptures in solitude for one's personal edification and instruction. I treasure such time. It is critical to spiritual growth. Yet, there is also great spiritual benefit from gathering for study with others who desire to bring their lives under the authority of Scripture. There is opportunity for discussion, clarification, and feedback which normally doesn't occur in a worship service where a sermon is delivered.

I thank God for the Wednesday night study group. I encourage all believers to be involved in such a group. It is just one more benefit of life in community with other followers of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ecclesiophilist?

OK, it's not a real word. It is a made-up word which roughly means "one who loves the church." I do love the church. I have been attending a Baptist church since I was a few weeks old. That doesn't mean I love only Baptist churches, it is simply the church culture in which I grew up. At age 25, I became a pastor of a Baptist church and have been serving in this capacity ever since (I am now 43). The church has shaped my life significantly. Through her proclamation, discipleship, ordinances, and people, she has been a formative influence upon me.

Even if I were not a pastor, I would love the church because Jesus Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25). It is the only entity on earth which Jesus Christ purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28).
Just so you know the perspective from which I will post about the church and things related to the church, I will give a couple of points of clarification.

  • The church is the company of the redeemed who have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not confined to any particular denomination but includes all those who are genuine believers. This aspect of the church is sometimes called the universal or invisible church.
  • The Bible also refers to the local church. This use of the term church refers to local assemblies of baptized believers who gather for worship, instruction, ordinances, ministry, and mission.

Much more could be said about the church, but these brief points give you an idea of where I am coming from.

I suppose one of my pet peeves is people who say they are Christians but have no interest in or regard for the church. Those who claim to belong to the first group (universal) should also belong to the second group (local). All who love Jesus should be ecclesiophilists - they should love the church. Jesus Christ is the head of the church which is His body (Colossians 1:18). If you love the Head, you should also love His body.

The truth is that we cannot really think ourselves biblical Christians without the church. The biblical pattern is that all who are saved are added to the church (Acts 2:47). In context, this refers to the local assembly of believers gathered for community life in Christ. God designed the Christian life to be lived in connection with other believers.

Now, I do not entertain any naive idea that the church on earth is perfect (though it is in the process of being perfected). I try not to allow my love for the church to cloud my discernment or critical evaluation of her faith and practice. Sometimes my posts will be critical of certain aspects of church life. But, all that said, I do love the church. I am an incurable ecclesiophile. I hope you are as well.