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.